Farmers and preservationists at odds over sandhill crane hunting bill

Samantha Hendrickson
Wisconsin State Farmer
A new bill that would establish a Sandhill Crane hunting season is making its way through the state legislature.

A new bill that would establish a Sandhill Crane hunting season is making its way through the state legislature.

Farmers and protectionists are at odds over the bill — farmers are devastated over the crop damage caused by the once-endangered cranes, while conservationists are afraid the sandhills' fellow species, the whooping crane, could be next. 

Currently, portions of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming have sandhill crane hunting seasons. 

S.B. 620 is awaiting a floor vote on the senate, though it it not clear when a hearing will be scheduled. In light of the Feb. 2021 wolf hunt in Wisconsin that made national headlines, this bill is already gaining attention. The bill, if passed, would call on the DNR to establish special license and a hunting season for the cranes. 

Sen. Mary Felzkowski, one of the sponsors S.B. 620, said that because the Wisconsin sandhill crane population is no longer endangered, that "it’s time now to manage that resource, just as we do with all our other waterfowl and birds."

What conservationists are saying 

More then 70 years ago, sandhill cranes were on the verge of extinction in Wisconsin. But thanks to conservation efforts in place since the 1930s, they are now one of the most abundant crane species in the United States. 

However, their cousin the whooping crane is federally protected by the Endangered Species Act. Killing one can result in a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Only 500 remain in the wild, and conservationists are worried that due to similar appearance and migration patterns to the sandhill crane, their many years of saving this species could be in jeopardy. 

"Even one adult (whooping crane) that is taken out of this population has pretty grave consequences for the success of this reintroduction," said Anne Lacy senior manager of North America programs at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio. 

What farmers are saying 

State and federal programs already allow farmers to shoot a limited amount of sandhill cranes on their property, as long as they show proof of crop damage, have exhausted alternatives and obtain the right state and federal permits.

But for some farmers, it isn't enough. 

"It's like trying to drain Lake Michigan with a shot glass," said Berlin crop farmer Dave Gneiser, whose corn crop has been damaged extensively by sandhill cranes. 

The bill, unlike the permit, would also allow hunters to harvest and eat the cranes, rather then leave them after shooting. 

"I think farmers and hunters want to do the right thing," said Keith Ripp, the executive director of government relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. "You know, if you're gonna shoot an animal, you want to be able to harvest it."

Most farmers put a non-toxic chemical on their corn called Avipel. But with rising farm costs and rain often washing the chemical away, it puts a huge financial burden on crop farmers. 

The bill would also require that hunters seeking a license undergo education about sandhill vs. whooping cranes, something Gneiser thinks is good enough.

"Cranes are not endangered of extinction in other states (with hunting seasons.) One of the things some people are concerned about is shooting a whooping crane... well yeah, you might actually accidentally trip and fall and break a bone," Gneiser said. "Should I bubble-wrap you to protect you from everything?" 

Samantha Hendrickson can be reached at 414-223-5383 or shendrickson@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @samanthajhendr.