The battle over a sandhill crane hunt in Wisconsin isn’t over.
In fact, it might just be starting.
The Wisconsin Conservation Congress plans to ask the public whether a hunt is a good idea at its spring hearings Monday April 9, less than a month after a Republican bill that would have created a hunt died in the Legislature after bird lovers railed that hunters already kill enough animals.
Waupaca County’s hearing will begin at 7 p.m. in the Waupaca High School Performing Arts Center. Hearings are also scheduled in Stevens Point. Wautoma, Kaukauna, Oshkosh and Shawano.
The question promises to reignite a heated debate. Wisconsin prides itself on its hunting heritage. Hunting advocates argue the sandhill population is out of control and the birds devour farmers’ corn seeds, but the state also is home to the International Crane Foundation, one of the world’s leading crane protection organizations, not to mention throngs of people who admire sandhills.
“I’m really not surprised it’s being brought up again, simply because I understand the nature of hunting in Wisconsin,” said Lyn Young Lorenz of Poynette, who has volunteered for three decades to count sandhills for the foundation. “I just don’t think it’s necessary. If people lived near a wetland or paid attention to sandhill cranes the way I have for 30 years, they wouldn’t be asking for this.”
Sandhill cranes are tall, elegant creatures with huge wing spans and a call that sounds like something out of “Jurassic Park.” The bird was hunted to near extinction around the turn of the 20th century, but the species has since rebounded and is now found throughout North America and eastern Siberia.
Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario, Canada, have become important nesting grounds for what biologists call the eastern flock, a group of about 70,000 birds that migrate up and down the eastern half of the United States. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated Wisconsin’s sandhill population stood at about 25,000 in late October. Thousands of people volunteer every year to count them.
As the population grew, however, more Wisconsin farmers complained about sandhills eating corn seeds and fledgling stalks. Federal wildlife officials issued 55 permits to southern Wisconsin landowners to kill problem cranes last year, up from 16 in 2008.
Thirteen states have implemented sandhill hunts and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has said the population here is healthy enough to withstand a limited hunting season. State Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, introduced a bill earlier this year authorizing a hunt but bird lovers ripped the proposal and Republican leaders never advanced the measure to a vote.
While Kleefisch was drafting his bill the Conservation Congress, a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR on policy, was preparing a question to place on its spring hearing ballot asking people whether they support a sandhill hunt.
The referendum isn’t binding on the DNR, but approval would give legislators more credibility if they decide to bring back a sandhill hunt bill next session. Even if a bill were to pass, it would likely take several years to develop rules establishing a hunt, said Kent Van Horn, a DNR waterfowl expert.
“The public has been asking for this hunt for a number of years,” said John Edelblute, a duck hunter from Hartford who serves as vice chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress’ migratory study committee and wrote the question. “I think there’s going to be a lot of resistance. We’ll just listen to who makes the biggest uproar. That’s what we’re there for. Let the public debate it.”
The battle lines already are reforming.
Bird advocates say the cranes’ resurgence represents a conservation success story. Hunters can’t kill enough cranes to make much of a dent in crop damage and farmers instead should treat their seeds with a crane repellent the Crane Foundation developed, they contend.
They also say Wisconsin hunters already can kill myriad species, including deer, coyotes, turkeys, bears and mourning doves, Wisconsin’s official peace symbol. Gov. Scott Walker just signed a bill that authorizes a wolf hunt.
“People in Wisconsin have a different relationship with cranes,” said Karen Etter Hale, vice president of the Wisconsin Audubon Council. “We’ve watched the birds come back very slowly.”
The Crane Foundation has remained neutral so its data and statistics are seen as objective, said Jeb Barzen, the foundation’s ecology director. Still, he reiterated the foundation’s stance that hunting won’t solve crop damage problems and Wisconsin’s crane population is leveling.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist Paul Zimmerman said farmers believe the repellent will just push the cranes into untreated fields _ an assertion Barzen disputed, saying the cranes will stay in the treated fields and look for other food. Regardless, Zimmerman said hunting offers a means of controlling population growth and gives hunters “another recreational opportunity.”
“I’m optimistic there’ll be a good response on Monday on establishing a crane season,” he said.
Dave Swanson, president of the Green Bay Duck Hunters Association, said his group supports a sandhill hunt, noting that the DNR believes a hunt wouldn’t hurt the overall sandhill population and hunters are paying for crop damage reimbursements through their fees.
“We’ve done such a great job in the state restoring our natural resources,” he said. “You’ve never seen more ducks, more mourning doves, more sandhill cranes. I know the Audubon Society just thinks we want something more to hunt. Well, everything in God’s garden is available to us.”