In February of 2012 Wisconsin State Representatives Joel Kleefisch, Joan Ballweg, and Richard Spanbauer introduced AB613, a bill requiring the Department of Natural Resources to authorize and regulate the hunting of Sandhill Cranes in Wisconsin. While such a bill is of great concern to those aghast at the idea of killing a bird with such enormous aesthetic appeal, the representatives cited claims of damage to spring crop plantings due to the burgeoning crane population as the primary reason for the proposal.
Since Ron Sauey, Forest Hartman, and I co-founded the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in 1973, we have advocated for the complete protection of all cranes species in eastern Asia and Africa—where nine of the world’s ten threatened species remain in low numbers. But, like the abundant Sandhill Cranes of North America, Demoiselle Cranes and Eurasian Cranes occur in large numbers in some parts of their Eurasian range, and in some nations they are hunted—often by hungry humans. Effective conservation is based on understanding and working with the needs and values of local people living near the cranes.
To understand ICF’s position on crane hunting, let me share with you the stories of two populations of endangered Siberian Cranes, the white Asian cousin to our Whooping Cranes that were extirpated in Wisconsin by uncontrolled hunting.
The Siberian Cranes that Migrated to India
In the winter of 2002–2003, the very last pair of snow-white Siberian Cranes graced the ancient landscapes of India that their kind had populated since times untold. In India they are revered as “the Lily of Birds.” The following spring, Russian ornithologists were dismayed when the last pair of “Sibes” did not return to the wetland near the Kunovat River. Since 1996, they had been the last nesting pair, returning every year. A few months later, an Afghan conservationist met a hunter who said he shot a Siberian Crane that spring as the birds migrated towards their breeding grounds in northwest Siberia.
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way for the Sibes. When ICF’s Ron Sauey began his doctoral research in 1973 on Siberian Cranes that wintered in India there were 76 of them. When Sauey completed his research in 1977, their number had dwindled to 56. During the intervening years the Sibe population had gradually declined, even though reproduction (as determined by the number of cinnamon-brown juveniles) had been high.
On a beautiful day in late March, Sauey, in company with Theodore Eliot, the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan, discovered 55 Sibes at Lake Ab-i-Estada, in southern Afghanistan, not far from the border with Pakistan. Sauey knew they were the same birds he had studied that winter by the distinctive molting patterns of the juveniles as they made the transition from cinnamon-brown to white.
There was an opportunity to save these cranes, he thought. But Ambassador Eliot left Afghanistan later that year, and his successor was assassinated not long afterward. Travel to Afghanistan was suspended for Americans, and the Soviet Union invaded the country two years later in 1979. Conflict in the region continues to this day, all but preventing any kind of preservation efforts.
However, there is one thing we do know for certain about the Siberian Cranes that migrated to India: their decline was undoubtedly the result of hunting along their 3,000-mile migration route across Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The Siberian Cranes that Migrated to Iran
In 1978 another population of twelve Sibes was discovered wintering on the Caspian Sea lowlands of Iran. Sibes were perhaps once widespread in the profuse wetlands between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian, where dense vegetation also provided habitat for the recently extinct Caspian Tiger. However, in 1978, this group of cranes was restricted to a small complex of flooded rice fields surrounded by strips of forests where trappers would set ingenious traps for ducks and geese. Shooting was not allowed because it scared birds away from the traps. So, ironically, it was a haven for the Sibes.
But the limited wetland within the trapping complex only provided habitat for three to four breeding pairs of Sibes and their offspring. Territorial when paired, mates vigorously chase intruders from their feeding areas, and I would guess that many sub-adults were shot as they were forced from lowland rice fields. Consequently, the population hovered dangerously between ten and twelve birds for about fifteen years.
In early March, the Sibes would head northwest, resting at coastal wetlands in Azerbaijan and Russia and on wetlands in western Kazakhstan before continuing north to their breeding grounds located about 1,000 miles south of those used by the Indian Sibes. The Iranian birds’ strange migration route looked on a map like the bottom three-quarters of a backwards “S”.
Following the collapse of the USSR in 1990 and before the completion of the pipeline between Azerbaijan and the Black Sea, Azerbaijan became an independent but impoverished country, experiencing financial crises with the associated food shortages. Former restrictions on hunting in wetland nature reserves where the Sibes rested were lifted in order to help local people survive. From the early 1990s, this population of Sibes continued to decrease, even though some pairs brought juveniles back to the lowland haven in Iran. As with the Indian population, the Sibes of the flock that migrated to Iran have likely declined because of hunting. Since 2007, only a single male has been seen in Iran.
Throughout this period of decline of the Sibes that wintered in India and Iran, ICF has worked closely with conservationists in all the range nations to promote the conservation of cranes. Thousands of huge colorful posters of the Sibe featuring a magnificent painting by Robert Bateman and appropriate slogans in various languages, even a video about the Sibes, were shared widely in the range nations. Brochures were made to show hunters the difference between cranes and other waterfowl.
Our efforts to preserve these cranes, which began when the Sibe populations were already dangerously low, failed. Today, the only viable population of Sibes is in East Asia where almost four thousand birds migrate between China and eastern Russia. These cranes and all other species of cranes in East Asia are strictly protected from shooting throughout their wide range.
Back in North America
Through my experiences with the shooting of cranes in West Asia, I have become emotionally sensitive to issues concerning the shooting of cranes worldwide, and that worry extends to the current proposal to sanction the hunting of Sandhill Cranes in Wisconsin. However, I realize that in North America it is the hunters and not the birders that are at the forefront of conservation of game species and their habitats. The Russians have a humorous slogan, “Conservation without cash is conversation.” The hunters have provided an abundance of financial support for conservation—for which we birders are forever grateful.
So, why should I be upset by the legal hunting of the flourishing Sandhill Crane? My opinion is that certain species, although abundant, should not be hunted. These include raptors (hawks, eagles), songbirds (finches, chickadees), and cranes. On the other hand, abundant North American game species such as geese, many kinds of ducks, and deer all breed rapidly and can therefore sustain a harvest. In some cases—especially with Snow Geese, Canada Geese, and Whitetailed Deer—hunting is imperative in order to prevent the deleterious effects that come with overly large populations.
In Wisconsin, proponents of hunting of Sandhills claim that crane damage to new plantings in spring is a justification for crane hunting in autumn. Researchers at ICF have developed a strategy that effectively stops crane crop damage by applying an inexpensive and distasteful powder called Avipel to the seeds before planting. When farmers secure a permit that allows them to shoot the cranes causing damage to their crops, the rest of the cranes simply move to someone else’s field and do damage there. When Avipel is applied, cranes do not move; they remain in treated fields to forage on the abundance of earthworms and insects, ignoring the treated plants.
On the issue of hunting where the numbers of Sandhill Cranes can support harvest and where the human population is supportive of hunting, ICF is taking the role of providing the scientific data and facilitating the citizen involvement that is essential to informed decisions about hunting. It is my guess that ICF staff, the Board of Directors, and other supporters of our organization would not personally want to shoot cranes.
However, I have found that the concept of inclusiveness is vital to ICF’s effectiveness in achieving our mission. We must listen to many voices and ideas. Polarization of ideas and values is often divisive and counterproductive. In the case of the hunting of cranes, and other threats to these marvelous birds, we must listen carefully to all positions. By helping to bring together those against Sandhill hunting with the hunters, management plans can be developed to minimize impacts on threatened portions of the Sandhill population, such as the pairs colonizing eastern states and provinces, and on the Whooping Cranes that are now being reintroduced into eastern flyways shared with Sandhills.
Similarly, in western Asia, taking the approach of working with hunters on controlled harvest of abundant crane species might prove more effective than advocating a ban on the hunting of all cranes. Would that have saved the Sibes? There is no way to tell. But if effective, widespread public education could have been achieved, perhaps crane hunters might have protected the white cranes and harvested the abundant grey species.
Grass roots education is extremely difficult within the enormous areas traversed by cranes, especially in pockets where the educators’ personal security may be threatened. And this is why our Asian colleagues advocated for the total ban on crane hunting in their respective countries.
Finding balance between emotion and reason is often a tightrope walk for all of us. ICF has chosen to reason with both sides to find that elusive win-win scenario.