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The Green Room: Should Sandhill Cranes Be Fair Game?

Sandhill cranes are perhaps the earth’s oldest living bird species.  Measuring up to 5 feet tall, these iconic symbols of wilderness have rebounded from near extinction in our area.  Has this conservation success story gotten out of hand?  In this installment of WEMU’s Green Room series, Barbara Lucas explores varying perspectives.


David Fair (DF): On October 18th the Michigan House passed a resolution encouraging the Natural Resources Commission to consider opening a recreational Sandhill crane hunting season, at some point in the future.  The mere suggestion has led to a firestorm of controversy.  In this month's edition on WEMU's "The Green Room," Barbara Lucas dives head first into this this hot button topic.

Rachelle Roake:  We get a lot of people coming in, traveling to see these birds.  It’s just kind of breathtaking, to see these huge birds flying in…

Barbara Lucas (BL):  That’s Rachelle Roake, Michigan Audubon’s Conservation Coordinator speaking of these prehistoric birds with a 6-foot wing span. 

Roake:  …by the hundreds.  Just calling.  It’s an incredible experience. 

BL: Should Michigan’s Sandhill cranes become “fair game,” literally?  Each fall, thousands of them gather together before migrating south for the winter.   And people gather to watch them fly in.  Here’s Barbara and Steve White, at Haenhle Sanctuary in Jackson.

Barbara White: I don’t understand why anyone would hunt them. They are so beautiful. I’m from Ohio, and I’d never heard of them before moving up here. 

Steve White:  They weren’t around here until the last two or three decades, or so. 

BL:  Indeed, a century ago the cranes migrating through Michigan were basically wiped out, thanks to hunting, and draining of wetlands.  But when hunting was banned, the few remaining cranes multiplied.  Now there’s over thirty thousand.   But, Roake says, considering the small gene pool, that’s not enough to warrant hunting,

Roake:  We could be setting the species up for disaster. If there's some sort of environmental change or a disease comes through and the population doesn't have enough genetic variability to overcome that, the birds could disappear.

BL:  That’s in contrast to the crane population of the Central Flyway out west.  That migration path is used by half a million cranes yearly.  All the Central Flyway states except Nebraska allow regulated hunting of Sandhill cranes.  But our cranes, in the Mississippi Flyway, are a separate, smaller population.  In our flyway, only Tennessee and Kentucky allow crane hunting.  In Ohio, they’re listed as endangered. Why then consider hunting them in Michigan?  With less natural habitat to forage in, cranes have learned that newly planted cornfields are like an all-you-can-eat buffet.  They go down the rows neatly picking out the seeds with their long narrow bills. But, Roake says there’s a solution: a non-toxic product called Avipel.  If a crane eats a seed coated with it, it immediately…  

Roake: …has an upset stomach and doesn't want to eat the corn seeds anymore, and then will still remain in the field and will start consuming other insect pests that might impact the crops.  So really it's a win-win situation.

BL:  While acknowledging Avipel is good to have in the toolbox, not everyone feels it’s enough.  A call to the Michigan Farm Bureau confirms their support of a crane hunt.  Calls to area farmers explain why. 

Tom Zenz: They’re killing us.  We are replanting forty plus acres every year.  They’re just overpopulated.  It’s bad. 

BL:  Farmer Tom Zenz, of Grass Lake feels it’s high time we allow crane hunting.  Regardless of Avipel.

Zenz:  We’ve used it for probably ten years now.  It’s not cheap. 

BL:  His cousin Butch Lincoln in Jackson County says he had to replant 188 acres, which cost him $30,000.  After that, he started using Avipel, too.

Butch Lincoln: It works, it kinda deters them.  But it’s pretty expensive to use.

BL:  While Avipel can help corn farmers who can afford it, it’s not available for vegetables.

Kathy Fusilier:  They like vegetables, trust me.  They’ll eat pumpkins, anything that has a seed in it they’ll eat it. We lost our whole acorn crop one year because every one had a hole in it the size of a quarter and ate the seeds out of them.

BL:  That’s Farmer Kathy Fusilier, of Manchester. She’s talking about her ruined acorn-squash crop. 

Fusilier: It’s not that anyone’s against wildlife, but the problem is it costs us so much money.  Farmers are like anyone else.  We go to work because we have bills to pay.  And when the animals come in—doesn’t matter what type it is—now it’s the crane issue—but when they come in, and they cost you 20, 30, 40% of your crop, you go to work all week and your boss says, “Here’s only 60% of your paycheck because the cranes ate the other 40%,” how can you pay all your bills?

BL:  But, what about “depredation permits”?  With them, farmers are already allowed to shoot cranes damaging their crops.  The farmers say new cranes fly in and replace them.   Here’s Tom Zenz.

Zenz:  You can only shoot so many!

BL:  Can farmers charge more to cover the damage?  According to Kathy Fusilier…

Fusilier:  It doesn’t work that way.  We are told what we get to sell our crops for.

BL:  Another rub is, under the depredation permit, farmers aren’t allowed to eat the cranes they shoot.  And, apparently they make good eating. 

Jim Moran:  I've heard other people refer to it as rib eye in the sky.

BL:  Only about 7% of Michigan’s hunters shoot waterfowl, and hunter Jim Moran is one of them.  

Moran:  I guess from what I hear that they are quite delicious.

BL:  He’s confident recreational hunting of cranes won’t be allowed unless their numbers can handle it.

Moran:  I believe that if the DNR applies their research and their funding to adequately look into that, then if they determine that the population is large enough for a hunting season, then I would trust that they're the experts and they know what they're doing.

BL:  At this month’s meeting of Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission, Chairman John Matonich says the NRC is not the sole “decider” on this issue.  Barbara Avers of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources explains.

Barbara Avers: The first step is the NRC would name them a game species, and they could propose a hunt, but then we have to go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and work through the whole Mississippi's Flyaway Council in order to get a plan approved.

BL: Avers believes the 17-state Flyway Advisory Council would be protective of our cranes. 

Barbara Avers: There are a lot of stop-gaps in place.  Even if we got to that point, it would actually be a very conservative season. It would be under permit, only very limited permit only.  So it wouldn't just be like unlimited take or anything like that.  It would actually be a fairly small, very controlled hunt.

BL:  That begs the question, if the hunting would be so limited, would it make a difference?  And if not, why allow it in the first place?  Supporters of a hunt point out that seven states in the Central Flyway hold crane festivals and allow crane hunting.   They feel both ways of appreciating the cranes can co-exist. I keep going back to the pair of cranes we witnessed doing their spectacular mating dance, on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.  Cranes are far from numerous there.  Would they be at risk?  Avers point out that the Natural Resources Commission can structure a hunt by regions, and determine allowable harvests—if any—appropriate for each.  They do that with crane hunts in other states, and deer hunts here in Michigan. With questions like, “How fast is the crane population in Michigan growing,” and “Just how numerous is too numerous,” it depends on whom you ask.  The Michigan Natural Resources Commission issued a statement at their last meeting. 

NRC Chairman John Matonich:  If this Commission ever considers adding Sandhill cranes to the game species list, and then subsequent to that, considers hunting, it will do so only after a thorough consideration of the science, and a complete exploration of all the effective alternatives…

BL:  In other words, they won’t be considering a crane hunt until learning more.

BL:  In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News. 

Audio Credits:

Sandhill cranes

·         Laura Gooch, XC144184. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/144184file:///C:/Users/News.assoc/AppData/Local/Temp/OICE_15_974FA576_32C1D314_1B48/msohtmlclip1/01/clip_image002.png Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0

·         Antonio Xeira, XC361032. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/361032. file:///C:/Users/News.assoc/AppData/Local/Temp/OICE_15_974FA576_32C1D314_1B48/msohtmlclip1/01/clip_image002.png Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

·         Mike Nelson, XC90609. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/90609. file:///C:/Users/News.assoc/AppData/Local/Temp/OICE_15_974FA576_32C1D314_1B48/msohtmlclip1/01/clip_image002.png Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5

·         Paul Marvin, XC333395. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/333395. file:///C:/Users/News.assoc/AppData/Local/Temp/OICE_15_974FA576_32C1D314_1B48/msohtmlclip1/01/clip_image002.png Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

November 9th meeting of Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission

·         Michigan Audubon


Status and Harvests of Sandhill Cranes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2017.

Management Plan for the Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes, Prepared for the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyway Councils, 2010.

U.S. Dept of Agriculture Wildlife Damage Management Technical Report on Sandhill and Whooping cranes, 2017.

“How to Hunt Sandhill Cranes,” by Brian Lovett, the Duck Blog, Sept. 15, 2016.

“Sandhill Cranes Facts and Figures, Developed by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation” (a conservation/hunting and fishing organization)

“Protect your corn from cranes,” University of Wisconsin Extension Publication A3897, 2013.

Avipel Crane Deterrent

Michigan Audubon Opposes Proposal of Sandhill Crane Hunt, by Diane Huhn, Michigan Audubon, June 29, 2017.

Cranefest 2018, Michigan Audubon

International Crane Foundation

Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary

Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes

National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2016.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.
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