Sentiment is growing to implement a sandhill crane hunting season in Wisconsin, as evidenced by a vote conducted recently by the Wisconsin Conservation Congress (WCC), a citizen’s advisory committee to the Wisconsin DNR. Although the vote is nonbinding, 2,559 citizens voted for the season, compared to 1,271 who voted against it. Sixty-five counties supported the hunt; just four did not.

A bill to allow DNR to plan a sandhill crane hunt was introduced last year by Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc). Although the bill died in the Legislature, Kleefisch was quoted in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune as calling the WCC vote encouraging, and he left open the idea of introducing another bill when the next legislative session begins in January.

“In Wisconsin, there’s a constitutional right to hunt and fish,” Kleefisch said. “If we have sustainable hunting and fishing resources, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a carefully considered, sustainable hunting season for that species.”

Regardless of how the vote influences the bill, it would be several years before the DNR would establish the season guidelines, even if the hunt were allowed to proceed.

By all accounts, the Eastern Population of sandhill cranes in Wisconsin have been an inspiring conservation achievement—mostly brought about by sportsmen’s dollars. Down to just 25 breeding pairs in the 1930s, the birds rebounded to a current estimated population of about 25,000. Approximately 72,000 cranes migrate through Wisconsin and surrounding states annually, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Among those advocating most fervently for the hunt are Wisconsin farmers, who suffer widespread damage to crops, especially corn seedlings, caused by the cranes.

“You can have a flock of cranes go down a cornfield row by row and pull out the newly formed corn,” Paul Zimmerman told Channel3000.com. “Pull it out and the crop doesn’t grow there at all.”

A 2007 estimate of crop damage to farmers in the state was $263,000—and the farmers bear these losses personally. There is no government compensation. Crop damage shooting permits are available, and 73 were given to farmers in 2011. (Only 50 birds were reported killed in Kentucky’s new sandhill crane season, launched last year, which was the first such hunt in the east in nearly a century.)

The crop damage issue is not new, as a 2004 report from USDA’s Wisconsin Wildlife Services indicates—along with another problem: “Sandhill crane populations have steadily increased concurrent with increased reports of crop damage caused by cranes. Cranes also create a potential threat to human health and safety at airports. These large, slow-flying birds use runways as loafing and feeding areas. In 2004, WS (Wildlife Services) received 58 calls about agricultural crop damage caused by cranes. An urgent need exists for WS to provide assistance to landowners, businesses, and municipalities on crane issues.”

Opponents of the hunt generally ignore the airport dangers altogether and say that the crop destruction occurs mostly in the spring, so it would therefore not be mitigated by a fall hunt. They also point to chemical deterrents on the market that would discourage cranes from pulling up corn. Farmers say all the deterrents (which cost $5 to $7 an acre) would do is move the cranes to another field, and spring crop damage of course would be eased if the total population of birds was brought under better control.

Moreover, hunting keeps cranes from concentrating around a food source, which can dramatically increase the risk of disease. (Recently, more than 10,000 ducks and geese were reported killed by avian cholera in California’s Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.)

Also making the case for a hunt was the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway Councils’ approval of a management plan in July 2010 that authorizes individual states to develop hunting seasons for these birds.

States that currently allow sandhill crane hunting include: Kentucky, Kansas, Alaska, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming and Minnesota.

Numerous debates about this issue are appearing in the Wisconsin media. An April 11th online poll posted by Wisconsin Public Radio showed 80 percent of respondents against the hunt. Hunters are urged to make their voices heard in support of scientific wildlife management, and advocate for a sandhill crane season.

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