Research Indicates That Michigan’s House Resolution To Hunt Sandhill Cranes Is Premature [Opinion]

Michigan lawmakers seek to add the Sandhill crane to the game species list.

Unfortunately for the ancient and recently endangered Sandhill crane species, Michigan’s House of Representatives adopted House Resolution 154 this week. The resolution encourages the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to add Sandhill cranes to the game species list. The state representatives’ hopes are that the NRC will list the bird as a game species and seek U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approval to establish a Sandhill crane hunting season, according to a summary provided by the Michigan Legislature.

I am a strong supporter of hunting in Michigan. My family goes “Up North” to the northern part of the Lower Peninsula to legally hunt White-tailed deer every year. But after researching available scientific data, I do not support creating a hunting season on Sandhill cranes. My opposition is equally rooted in science as it is in my Michigan heart-song, which, in part, hums the strung-together, rattling bugle calls of the Sandhill crane.

These aren’t just your run-of-the-mill migratory birds. The Sandhill crane is believed to be the single oldest living bird species in the world. They have survived, in their present form, for more than 9 million years, according to Michigan Audubon. These birds existed in their current form before our own species’ distant ancestors even began evolving. Five million years before Australopithecus even walked on this earth, Sandhill cranes flew in our skies. The modern human as a species is only 200,000 years old. Our species’ existence could have happened 44 more times during the existence of these prehistoric birds. Just over a century ago, our species nearly drove their species into extinction by eliminating their habitat and hunting them. These ancient birds were saved from the brink of extinction, and they are considered a Michigan environmental success story.

Michigan’s state representative James Lower from Cedar Lake sponsored House Resolution 154, MLive reported. Lower called the Sandhill crane the “ribeye of the sky” and said that online recipes calling for Sandhill crane meat look delicious. Sixteen other states allow the hunting of Sandhill cranes, Lower said.

Regardless of hunting seasons on Sandhill cranes in other states, Michigan and the Great Lakes region is critical for the proliferation the Sandhill crane. According to literature from the Michigan DNR, the primary breeding grounds for the Eastern Population (EP) Sandhill cranes include Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario. Opening a hunting season in the Great Lakes State would affect the species differently than it might in other less crucial areas.

The Michigan Songbird Protection Coalition‘s director, Julie Baker, also opposed the House Resolution 154.

“There is no scientific or wildlife management justification for opening a recreational hunting season on Michigan’s sandhill cranes.”

The EP Sandhill crane is finally no longer listed as endangered. Its vulnerability score issued by State of the Birds is a nine. This score is shared by the Blackburnian Warbler and the Great Cormorant, among others. According to the 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fall Sandhill Crane Survey, the Michigan Sandhill crane population was 18,825 last year. The 2016 population was actually 18 percent lower than it was in 2015.

While the population is considered stable, Sandhill crane biology and mating habits make the species especially vulnerable. This species is slow to recover after a population loss, because they are slow to mature. They don’t breed for the first four or five years. When they do pair off, they mate for life and average less than one chick per pair, per season. One study of breeding pairs in Wisconsin showed that the Sandhill crane population is experiencing a decreased reproductive rate.

Sandhill crane in Michigan

According to recent Michigan Audubon literature, no reproductive studies have been done on the species in Michigan to date. Even worse, according to the same literature, given that Sandhill cranes are only recently back from near-extinction, their species is not out of the woods yet.

“The Eastern Population of sandhill cranes has recovered from being nearly wiped out less than 100 years ago. When a population sinks to such low levels, much of the genetic variation is lost, and a bottleneckoccurs. As the population grows from such limited genetic variation, it is at a genetic disadvantage and may not be able to adapt as well to threats such as climate change, disease, or environmental stress. A hunt may inadvertently reduce this genetic diversity further, or even eliminate genetically unique populations that still persist.”

Rep. Lower views this vulnerable species as ribeye of the sky. He cited scientifically undocumented claims that these birds are considered a major nuisance to farmers. In fact, a recent Purdue University study found that in Illinois, Sandhill crane damage to crops was not even significant enough to have its own category. Crop damage by Sandhill cranes was lumped into the category titled “other.” Meanwhile, no study of a similar nature has even been conducted for Michigan. Lower’s resolution had nothing to do with any scientific data.

Rachelle Roake, Conservation Science Coordinator for Michigan Audubon, told Michigan Songbird Protection Coalition that Michigan’s Sandhill crane population is a crucial source population for neighboring regions. For example, in Ohio, the species is still considered endangered. Risking Michigan’s population puts nearby populations in further danger. The fact that a resolution to request a Sandhill crane hunting season is backed by little more than anecdotes and state representative’s own curiosity for the taste of prehistoric meat is reprehensible.

We can still do something to continue the protection of this ancient species. The state’s Natural Resources Commission doesn’t have to follow the House resolution, and we can demand that they denounce the request for a hunting season on these migratory birds. The Michigan NRC actually has the exclusive authority to designate game species.

We can contact them by calling 517-284-6237 or emailing NRC@michigan.gov. We can ask them to make sure that the Sandhill crane is not listed as a game species in Michigan. This issue doesn’t just affect Michiganders. It affects surrounding areas and ultimately should concern all of us.

The Sandhill crane lived on earth while Michigan’s geological landscape was still being sculpted by four massive continental glaciers during the last great Ice Age. Surely, we can band together to make sure the Sandhill crane can survive a state representative’s craving for ribeye of the sky.

[Featured Image by Papa Bravo/Shutterstock]