As bird lovers rejoice the sandhill crane's return, hunters eye the 'ribeye of the sky'

At its root, Michigan's debate over a proposed sandhill crane hunt stems from a fundamental clash of worldviews between people who see the natural world as something to be protected and preserved and those who view the land as a resource to be managed.

Steve Gettle/Minden Pictures/Newscom
A pair of sandhill cranes tends a nest at Kensington Metropark in Milford, Mich. After almost entirely disappearing from Michigan, the sandhill crane is returning to the state, much to the delight of bird lovers – and the dismay of local farmers.

Lisa Johnson has spent her life coaxing corn, soybeans, and “potato chip potatoes” out of the ground in rural Montcalm County, Mich. In the past couple years however, her job has become considerably harder as her crops have faced a new threat: sandhill cranes.

The sandhill crane, a tall, migratory species known for its striking crimson forehead and rattling cry, was once nearly extinct in Michigan but has surged in recent years. Local bird watchers flock to Michigan wetlands to catch a glimpse of the majestic birds gathering in hundreds, even thousands, to breed.

But from Ms. Johnson’s perspective, the lanky birds have become “a pest.” And she’s not the only one who thinks so.

In the kind of clash between conservation and economic interests that’s become familiar across the country, Michigan’s new abundance of sandhill cranes has excited environmentalists and birdwatchers but also agitated farmers, who complain the birds damage crops and decrease yields. On Oct. 18 – in a move swiftly opposed by environmental groups – the Michigan House of Representatives proposed a controversial response: allow hunters to cull the flock.

“I think it’s a win for sport hunters,” says James Lower, the state representative who sponsored the resolution recommending the state’s Natural Resources Commission classify the birds as a game species. “It’s a win for farmers, and it’s a win for the cranes, too,” he added, referring to evidence suggesting that regulated hunting can keep overpopulation in check.

A familiar quarrel

The debate unfolding in Michigan follows a recurring pattern of sometimes-bitter battles between wildlife conservation and industry. At its root is a fundamental clash of worldviews between people who see the natural world as something to be protected and preserved and those who view the land as a resource to be managed.

It’s a tension that reverberated through the Pacific Northwest for decades as the timber industry and environmentalists feuded over territory in the Pacific Northwest that was home to the threatened northern spotted owl. In recent years, it has echoed through the Western Plains in debates over the sage grouse, a strikingly-plumed prairie bird whose protection efforts conflicted with the interests of ranchers and drilling. 

Successful conservation efforts, coupled with diminishing natural habitats, have exacerbated such tensions around the resurgence of wolves in the Northern Rockies, rattlesnakes in New England, panthers in Florida, and now sandhill cranes, in the Great Lakes region.

A conservation success story

Sandhill cranes are believed to be among the world’s oldest surviving birds. The variety found in Michigan, belonging to the Eastern Population of the greater North American subspecies, ranges from southern Ontario to central Florida and primarily nests in wetlands or grasslands around the Great Lakes region.

In the late 19th century, the local population teetered on the brink of extinction as a result of habitat destruction and rampant hunting. The passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, a federal law intended to protect hundreds of vulnerable species from hunters, set the stage for the local population's return. But the cranes' low reproduction rates – the birds are monogamous, and females typically lay only two eggs – meant that recovery came slowly. It's only in the past few decades that the Eastern Population began to rebound.

By 1996 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s fall survey of the cranes, the most widely used population barometer, counted more than 30,000 Eastern Population cranes; in 2015 the count topped 90,000.

The comeback has been particularly pronounced in Michigan, where many of the cranes nest. From 2004 to 2015, fall survey counts in the state increased an average of 9.4 percent annually, according to a February state Department of Natural Resources report. The 2015 count of 23,082 cranes in Michigan was more than double the 2004 figure.  

“Michigan’s iconic Sandhill Cranes, majestic and standing three to four feet tall,” Howard Myerson wrote in Michigan Audubon’s magazine, Jack Pine Warbler, in 2014, “are by all accounts an example of conservation success.”

But it’s also the birds’ success that led to farmers’ troubles.

“The problem is you don’t see one or two,” says Ms. Johnson, who has come to detest the birds’ piercing cry. “You’ve got eight, 10, 12, or more out in the field.... They pluck the planted corn right out of the ground.”

Hunters to the rescue?

Representative Lower, a Republican from heavily agricultural Montcalm, says he was inspired to propose a state sandhill hunt after fielding repeated complaints about the birds, which typically eat corn or wheat seedlings and otherwise damage vulnerable young crops.

“I hear about this all time from constituents,” he says. “Essentially they felt that the population had gotten to a point they are out of control.”

Sandhill cranes are currently hunted in 16 states, mostly in the West, where the birds are part of different subpopulations. (Many hunters praise the meat as the “ribeye of the sky.”)

In Michigan, farmers can apply for special permits to kill a given number of cranes in a year based on crop damage under federal law. In 2012, a peak year for the permits, 1,136 Michigan cranes were killed. But the guidelines prohibit collection of the carcasses, so they’re simply left in the fields, a requirement Lower criticizes as wasteful.

“As somebody who hunts and fishes a lot, that’s pretty offensive to not be able to harvest the meat,” says Lower. “The hunting season would solve that.”

Environmentalists disagree. Before the resolution even made it to the House floor, groups including the Audubon Society and the Green Party launched an opposition campaign, highlighting the bird’s precarious history, local symbolism – many consider Sandhill cranes, Michigan’s tallest bird, an area treasure – and spiritual importance to some Native American tribes. Bird lovers in Michigan and across the country were outraged.  

“We’re not an anti-hunting group,” says Rachelle Roake, conservation science coordinator for the Michigan Audubon. “But we really support scientifically sound management practices, and this isn’t what a sandhill crane hunt in Michigan would be.” 

There simply isn’t enough viable data on the cranes’ Michigan population to responsibly manage any kind of hunt, Ms. Roake says. The state’s apparent sandhill resurgence should be celebrated, she says, but it’s only in the past several years that the population appears to have stabilized to healthy levels. And the data that does exist, including from the US Fish and Wildlife's fall survey, may show a strong positive trend but still varies wildly. In the Michigan Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, another barometer, the state’s estimated spring population actually dropped from 115,000 in 2015 to 49,000 in 2016.  

“Overall it’s not a well-understood population,” Ms. Roake says. “And there are huge standards of errors on all of the numbers that we actually have.”

Sandhill cranes’ slow maturation and low breeding rates also make any impacts difficult to detect, Roake argues. Because the Eastern Population’s numbers were so low as recently as a couple decades ago, the birds in Michigan likely have low genetic diversity, leaving them especially vulnerable to any changes. “It’s just kind of a slippery slope,” she says. “Once you open that door to hunting, it’s hard to go back.”

A loose concept

At this point, it’s unclear what a Michigan sandhill crane hunt would actually look like. The resolution passed by the House is non-binding. A spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources tells the Monitor that the agency is advising the Commission on science but has no position on the matter. If the Commission does accept the legislators’ recommendation, hunt parameters, including the length of the season and number of eligible birds, would be set in accordance with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Advocates argue this serves as an important safeguard, and that any hunt would be limited to levels that wouldn’t damage the population’s overall health. “I personally, and I think the legislature, prefer that [guidelines] are set by wildlife experts,” says Lower, who has provisional plans to lead a sandhill hunt for legislators if the measure goes through.

Another way?

Environmentalists counter that even a highly regulated hunt would kill birds without actually solving the problems faced by farmers. Instead many advocate a different solution: Newly developed seed coatings for the crops that irritate cranes’ stomachs without actually harming them, training the birds to stay away from the crops. The most common is Avipel, a nontoxic repellent developed in conjunction with the International Crane Foundation. “It’s been shown to be effective,” says Roake. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Opponents fire back that modifying the seeds is expensive and impractical. In Montclam, Johnson, says she’s wary of any crop modifications, partly because of a negative connotation that might hurt sales. “I’m skeptical,” she says of the coating idea. A new crane hunt, she adds, “would be fine.”

In the absence of some intervention, however, the reality is that the cranes are likely to continue to clash with farmers because the two are essentially competing for limited resources.

“This really comes down to a habitat loss issue,” says Roake. “Michigan has lost so much of its wetlands, and a lot of that wetland habitat has been farmed.... Where else is wildlife going to go?”

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