By Howard Meyerson
Michigan’s iconic Sandhill Cranes, majestic and standing three to four feet tall, are by all accounts an example of conservation success. Once nearly extirpated by market hunting and wetland loss, they thrive today in marshes all around the state. Nearly 24,000 were counted across Michigan last spring. Only 27 Lower Peninsula pairs could be found in 1944.
“Sandhill Crane populations have grown exponentially over the past few decades,” reports Dave Luukkonen, avian research specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). “From 1966 to 2013, the growth rate has been 10.5 percent a year. At one point they were endangered here.”
Michigan’s cranes make up a growing percentage of the U.S. eastern population which totaled 87,796 in 2012, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). That growing presence on the Michigan landscape is viewed with pleasure and concern in different communities. Birdwatchers enjoy seeing more of them. Farmers increasingly complain about them eating crops. Hunters have asked whether Michigan will open a season for them, and three Michigan Indian tribes have proposed hunting seasons for this fall.
“The tribal take is marginal,” notes Russ Mason, MDNR wildlife division chief. “They have seasons already. It won’t make a difference (to the population).”
A 2012 harvest report by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission reported two Wisconsin cranes were killed during Great Lakes tribal seasons that year. Subsistence harvests are far smaller than non-tribal sport harvests according to Luukkonen, who has compared waterfowl harvests for both groups. The bigger question, he says, is whether Michigan is ready for a Sandhill Crane hunting season. He thinks not.
Michigan not likely to hold crane hunts soon
Sandhill Crane hunting was banned nationwide in 1916 with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act after crane numbers hit all-time lows. Hunting seasons have since been opened in portions of the country as populations have rebounded, but not until 2011 for eastern population cranes, those found in Michigan and other states like Kentucky and Tennessee where they are now hunted.
“The talk we hear comes primarily from hunters who have hunted them out west,” Luukkonen explained. It also comes from “agricultural interests who complain about the bird and ask why we can’t hunt them. I’ve been at meetings where policy makers flat out ask the question. But I don’t think Michigan is ready to move on it.”
Amy Trotter, resource policy manager for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, a Lansing-based nonprofit, said MUCC is not pursuing a season. “Individuals have asked,” Trotter said, “but I don’t see a groundswell of interest and don’t see farmers coming to the Natural Resources Commission like they do about deer or bear or other species that cause crop damage. We’re not interested in pushing it.”
More kill permits issued to farmers
Sandhill Cranes are killed every year by Michigan farmers under legal crop damage permits issued by the USFWS. Michigan agricultural interests increasingly are looking for management tools to control spring flocks that descend on fields and eat or trample young corn shoots. Nonlethal deterrents were found to have only “limited effectiveness,” according to the 2010 Management Plan for Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes, prepared for the Atlantic and Eastern Flyway Councils by state and federal partners. Devices that scare cranes away simply move them from one field to another, the report states.
“In 2002, the first year permits were issued in Michigan, just one was issued,” said Pete Butchko, state director for U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services, the federal agency that reviews permit applications before permits are issued by USFWS. “In 2013 there were 100 issued either at airports (for aviation safety) or for crops. Each permit can be for several dozen birds. It depends on the farm; a permit is issued to get them through the season.”
That some Michigan cranes are killed by Michigan farmers and hunters in Kentucky and
Tennessee does inform the fall hunting season question, according to state wildlife officials. But in response, Mason argues that hunting cranes in the fall won’t solve the spring problem in farm fields—a time when young, nonbreeding cranes are known to walk down rows of corn and pluck out the seedlings.
Ron Hoffman, a former Michigan Audubon board member and author of the Sandhill Crane chapter of the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas, said 2012 was a record year for Sandhill Cranes in Michigan; an estimated 24,800 were counted.
“There are things that could be used to help with crop depredation,” Hoffman said. “There are chemicals that can be used to treat the corn. It would help, but in some cases, between the time and the added cost to use it, it makes a break-even proposition for farmers. The biggest increase is taking place up north. The population is exploding and southern Michigan is close to carrying capacity.”
Michigan hunters won’t be shooting Sandhill Cranes any time soon, according to Mason. “I don’t see that happening,” he said. “The USFWS has a framework for allowing cranes to be hunted. We could if wanted to. There isn’t a federal reason or population reason not to. It’s not a biological question; it’s a social question. And should it ever become a burning issue, rest assured that all interests will have an equal seat at the table and a strong voice.
“The most important thing, whether we hunt them or don’t is that we celebrate their successful recovery. That they are abundant throughout the Mississippi flyway once again and that we have a surplus that can be harvested is due to sound management. Thirty years ago, things were much worse.”
© 2014 Howard Meyerson
This appears in the Jackpine Warbler, the magazine of Michigan Audubon.