Groups argue over allowing sandhill crane hunt in Michigan

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Mary Rosseel-Jones was joined by an unexpected companion on a walk through a Livingston County park in 2018: an Eastern sandhill crane. 

The towering bird approached, stopped, then trotted along next to her, keeping pace as she walked along a path in Kensington Metropark.

"We were taking a stroll together," said Rosseel-Jones of Clarkston. "It was just great." 

Eastern sandhill cranes are a more common sight in Michigan than they were in the mid-20th century, when their numbers had dwindled severely. Rosseel-Jones, a member of the Clarkston-Area Backyard Birders Club, doesn't want to go back to those times.

A sandhill crane preens at Kensington Metropark in Milford.

The birds' future is a point of debate among conservation and environment groups. The Michigan Natural Resources Commission heard Thursday from supporters and critics of a proposal to create a sandhill crane hunting season.

"A decision is not imminent," commission chair Carol Rose said after the meeting. "We can't do this by decree. We have to have deliberation, scientific data, stakeholder data before we can make a decision this significant.

"I don't expect this is going to happen any time soon, but the conversation had to start."

Sandhill cranes are formidable birds. They can grow to 5 feet fall, with tawny bodies, scarlet heads and a dinosaur-like screech.

They're also formidable eaters, said Barbara Avers, Department of Natural Resources waterfowl and wetland specialist. In the spring, they like to pluck fresh green shoots of corn from the soil, kernels and all, leaving bare patches in farmers' fields. 

Avers presented a slideshow about Michigan sandhill cranes during the Thursday commission meeting.

The stress sandhill cranes cause farmers was one reason Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, cited when he introduced a resolution early this year pushing the commission to put the Eastern sandhill crane on the state's list of game species and push the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to establish a hunting season.

The Natural Resources Commission and Legislature have the power to determine game species in Michigan. 

More:Explosion in Sandhill cranes in Michigan prompts calls for hunting to trim growth

But they don't have the sole authority to establish a sandhill crane hunting season, DNR spokesman Ed Golder said. That rests with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Before a sandhill crane hunting season could be established in Michigan, the DNR would have to tell an interstate council that oversees birds that migrate along the Mississippi River it wanted to have a hunt. The council would then move the proposal up to the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Establishing a sandhill crane hunt is not a priority for the DNR, Golder said, and the Natural Resources Commission has not asked the DNR for a recommendation to create a sandhill hunting season.

Still, critics fear a hunt is on the way.

A coalition of groups including Michigan Audubon, The Humane Society of the United States, the Michigan Anishinaabek Caucus, say the proposal to hunt sandhill cranes in Michigan is short-sighted and could present significant challenges to the birds' future.

They wrote a letter to commissioners imploring them not to support a hunt. They argued sandhill cranes are already contending with lost and fragmented habitat, climate change and development.

Because the birds reproduce slowly, with one breeding pair having about one chick or "colt" per year, hunting could have drastic implications, they argued.

"The sandhill crane numbers today don't reflect a problem, ecologically speaking," Michigan Audubon Executive Director Heather Good said. "We cannot discount the natural history of this species, and the fact that the sandhill crane's recently stabilized numbers actually tell a Michigan conservation success story."

Wildlife surveys indicate their population has increased since the early 1980s, Avers told commissioners in her presentation. She cautioned that surveys are inexact, sometimes conducted by volunteers and do not give a firm population.

But in its latest sandhill crane status and harvest report, the Fish & Wildlife Service estimated the Eastern sandhill crane population was roughly 95,000 last year and said it has grown roughly 4% per year since 1979.

Supporters of a sandhill crane hunt say the survey shows the population is robust enough to allow for one.

A hunting season could help raise money for the DNR through hunting license sales and limit the number of birds who feed on farmers' fields, said Nick Green, Michigan United Conservation Clubs spokesman. 

"MUCC is not advocating for a free-for-all sandhill crane hunt," Green said. "Similar to every other state in the flyway that has implemented a season, (Michigan) should approach harvest conservatively and targeted if a hunting season is enacted."

Three states — Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama — allow hunting for Eastern sandhill crane, the species that migrates through Michigan. Hunters killed 1,086 cranes during the latest hunting seasons in those three states, the Fish & Wildlife Service said.

It isn't fair to compare Michigan with the other states that hunt Eastern sandhill crane, Good argued. Michigan is where the birds breed.

Sandhill crane are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects more than 1,000 species of birds that fly across state and national boundaries.

Farmers can use repellants to keep sandhill cranes off their crops.

They also can apply for a depredation permits from the Fish & Wildlife Service. The permits allow people to kill, possess or transport birds on the list, including sandhill cranes, if they are damaging crops, livestock or private property; or threatening human health, safety or protected wildlife. 

The number of depredation permits given to Michigan residents to kill sandhill cranes has increased steadily since 2006, when 13 were issued, through 2020, when 122 were issued, Avers said.

The agency allowed for 21,705 birds to be killed in those years. It's unclear how many actually were. The Fish & Wildlife Service does not have information for birds killed from 2016-2020, but 5,832 were killed between 2006-2015.

People who kill birds with a depredation permit aren't allowed to eat or donate them. Instead, the birds must be left on the ground, buried, burned or turned in to the Fish & Wildlife Service.

That's wasteful, Rose said.

"The purest definition of conservation to me is to use without waste, and that's a big concern for a lot of folks," she said. 

Good, when she spoke to commissioners, said the birds aren't necessarily wasted because animals might scavenge for them.