Right now, it’s illegal in the state of Michigan to hunt the sandhill crane, the state’s largest and oldest bird. But a proposal to hunt the species within the state is gaining traction and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says if the state of Michigan asks, it will grant permission to hunt the bird. Michigan would join 15 other states that currently allow sandhill crane hunting. In these states, hunting requires both a state and federal license.
Detroit Free Press reporter Keith Matheny has been following this proposal closely. He explains Michigan is part of a “flyway” that’s home to the eastern population of sandhill cranes, a population that’s been smaller in size for a while. The species was almost hunted into extinction in the early 20th century in Michigan, but now, Matheny reports, it’s “making a rebound.”
According to Matheny, because the sandhill crane is a migratory bird, it falls under the umbrella of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, meaning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the final word on whether or not the population can be hunted.
“Because the population has rebounded to a point that they believe it can sustain hunting, basically any state along this flyway that asks will be able to hunt it,” Matheny said.
In Michigan, Matheny said the Michigan United Conservation Clubs have been pushing for the legalization of sandhill crane hunting. The state House of Representatives passed a resolution supporting hunting the sandhill crane this past fall. The state’s Natural Resources Commission has not yet considered the resolution, but according to Matheny there’s “some indication that there is support for a hunt at the DNR level.”
While the Department of Natural Resource’s official position is neutral on this issue, Matheny says emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal otherwise, with private emails between staff openly advocating for hunting the sandhill crane.
Some support the hunt for agricultural purposes. Some farmers, for instance, say the bird uproots young corn shoots in the spring to eat the kernels.
“There is a federal program where hunters that are experiencing a nuisance from these birds can get a permit now to shoot them,” Matheny said. “You actually can eat them after you shoot them when you kill them with this permit, but that permit use in Michigan has been pretty limited. It’s under 80 permits as of last count, have been used in a year.”
When the state House was considering the resolution to support a hunt, James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, presented a photo of a farmer’s tractor surrounded by what looked like hundreds of birds. He argued this photo was an accurate representation of the nuisance the sandhill crane poses to farmers.
“Well, turns out that photo came from a USDA report and it was a photo from Israel, not Michigan,” Matheny said. “The birds were another type of crane, not sandhill cranes, and that tractor in the photo was there to feed them, which is why they were crowding around, the idea being if we feed them in this location, maybe they’ll leave our crops alone.”
For now, the state is waiting on a decision from the Natural Resources Commission, which says it’s currently looking for more information on what problems farmers are having and what potential alternatives there are to a hunt in an effort to mitigate agricultural problems caused by the sandhill crane. If the state approves hunting, the case moves on to the federal level for approval.
“If it’s approved at the state level, it will then have to go through this federal process,” Matheny said. “But my reporting’s indicated that federal process will be more or less a rubber stamp allowing a hunt.”