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Will sandhill cranes be hunted in Michigan?

A debate on whether Michigan should have a hunting season for Sandhill cranes has begun.
A debate on whether Michigan should have a hunting season for Sandhill cranes has begun.

Some Michigan lawmakers say a hunting season is needed to limit the number of sandhill cranes.

A resolution in the Michigan Senate encourages the state Natural Resources Commission to approve making sandhill cranes game to hunt. Some Michigan lawmakers say there’s been an “explosion” in the eastern sandhill crane population, and that it’s causing problems for farmers.

Sandhill cranes are hard to miss. The gray and sand-colored birds stand close to five feet tall. Their calls sound primeval.

Eastern sandhill cranes were nearly wiped out 100 years ago. There are a lot more today, and farmers complain about the damage they do to their crops. In the spring, the migratory birds eat the planted seeds or young plants from corn and wheat fields.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines restrict hunting the cranes. There must be more than 30,000 eastern sandhill cranes before hunting is allowed. There are a lot more than that now.

“Our three-year average is now over 94,000. So, we've exceeded that upper limit of the management plan, and we believe that hunters are the first and primary tool for managing a wildlife population such as this,” said Amy Trotter, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. That organization represents hunting groups all over the state. They’d like to see a hunting season established.

Trotter concedes the federal government gives farmers permits to kill the cranes that damage their crops. But, she says there’s a problem.

“Unfortunately, those agriculture permits, you are not allowed to even consume the crane, so you actually have to bury it, and waste it. And from our perspective, that is unconscionable.”

Hunters say cranes are tasty table fare, calling them "ribeye of the sky."

Advocates for the large birds say sandhill cranes really don’t do that much damage to crops compared to other animals. They also say we just don’t know enough about the birds and their reproduction to consider a hunting season.

If a pair of cranes have a colt (a crane chick) at all, it’s only one or two of them each year.

“So we feel it's remarkably important to take a proactive stance and actually preserve and protect and reinforce federal protections granted to the sandhill crane by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” said Heather Good, executive director of Michigan Audubon.

She says since the population of eastern sandhill cranes got so small, there’s not much diversity left in the population. Killing some of them each year might make that problem worse.

It’s a long and involved process to establish a hunting season for a protected species such as the sandhill crane. First they have to be declared a game species in Michigan. Then a hunting license and fee would have to be established. A hunting plan would have to be developed. Hunting regulations for a first hunt would have to be approved.

“Once that would happen, then there's a whole number of steps that the department would have to take, including setting up a lottery system for hunting permits,” explained Barbara Avers, a waterfowl and wetlands specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Avers said once the state of Michigan has done all that, it still must get approval from the federal government, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Heather Good said the regulators should listen to other people and not just the hunters. She believes bird and wildlife watchers, hikers, and naturalists far outnumber the people who want to hunt the cranes.

“Let's let people have their say, people who simply appreciate the fact that we have such rich biodiversity in Michigan because we have a history of protecting and preserving habitats and species,” Good said.

She speculates that if Michigan promoted wildlife tourism featuring the birds, the state is likely to raise more money than fees from crane hunting licenses.

But hunters have already been paying the fees that go toward conservation of the kind of habitat the cranes need.

Amy Trotter with Michigan United Conservation Clubs says what’s lost in the debate is that hunting does not mean the elimination of a species. Hunting would be regulated and would be adjusted based on crane populations.

“So we all want the same goal of there to be robust sandhill cranes on the landscape for decades to come. But that does not mean that we should not be able to also have an opportunity to harvest some of those in the process,” she said.

If a sandhill crane hunting season is approved by both Michigan and the federal government, it might not be the end of the story. Michigan residents voted down a dove hunting season by more than a two-to-one margin back in 2006. A referendum to stop a sandhill crane hunting season could also possible.

Lester Graham is with Michigan Watch, the investigative unit of Michigan Radio.