The bugling calls of sandhill cranes are now common in the early spring mornings of Madison, but they have a long history that remained uncertain in Wisconsin for decades.
In the early twentieth century, they were hunted extensively as the “ribeye of the sky” with few regulations. The crane’s status as a tasty game bird, coupled with the destruction of wetland habitats as agricultural lands expanded, led to a concerning decrease in the eastern population. Aldo Leopold, a former UW-Madison professor and ecologist, foretold the probable extinction of sandhill cranes in his 1948 book, A Sand County Almanac.
“Someday, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions, perhaps in the fullness of geological time, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh,” Leopold wrote. “High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the baying of the phantom pack, the tinkle of little bells, and then a silence never to be broken, unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way.”
However, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, sandhill cranes and over a thousand other bird species received sweeping protection. With the combination of federal protection and conservation of wetland habitats, populations have increased dramatically. The current eastern population is nearing 100,000 birds.
With the sandhill crane recovered in its historical range, some Wisconsin residents are in favor of re-instituting a state hunt of the bird. Multiple states have held hunts, but most are in the Rocky Mountains, which has the most abundant population. Currently, there has been little movement from the state legislature to institute a hunt, but some rural communities see a fall hunt as a potential solution to the crop damage that has increased with the recovery of sandhill cranes.
However, both the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the International Crane Foundation have determined that a fall hunt would not have any considerable effect on crop damage by sandhill cranes.
Noise deterrents have also proven to be unsuccessful in preventing crop damage, but the chemical deterrent AvipelⓇ has proven to be effective and has low toxicity. Wisconsin landowners may also apply for a permit to allow lethal removal after the USFWS and the DNR concur that other preventative measures have been taken.
Conservationists are also concerned for the Wisconsin whooping crane population if the state were to institute a sandhill crane hunt. While the sandhill crane has recovered, there are a mere 800 whooping cranes in the world — 77 of which reside in Wisconsin. There are distinctive differences in plumage between the two birds, but in poor lighting and bad weather conditions, hunters have mistakenly killed whooping cranes.
The future of Wisconsin sandhill cranes was precarious for decades, and for the sake of their continued recovery the state must take careful steps to mitigate conflicts between the birds and people.