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RARE CRANE

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A pair of whooping cranes and a sandhill crane explore a cornfield near Horicon Marsh in May. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, this particular species of whooping crane is found only in North America and is the tallest bird on the continent, standing 5 feet tall. The cranes are endangered, with a few more than 800 in the world, both wild and captive. About 80 are in the eastern migratory flock nesting in Wisconsin.

Four endangered whooping cranes were shot and killed in Oklahoma last month during the sandhill crane hunting season — a hunting season that could be created in Wisconsin if a GOP-authored bill is successful.

The International Crane Foundation, based in Baraboo, has warned that allowing a sandhill crane hunting season in Wisconsin could threaten whooping cranes, an endangered species the foundation has worked to reintroduce to Wisconsin. That threat appears to have just become a reality in Oklahoma.

Whooping crane chick Wampanoag with foster mother Achilles on June 20 at the International Crane Foundation’s breeding facility. Wampanoag is the offspring of two cranes at Zoo New England’s Stone Zoo in Massachusetts. Footage provided by ICF.

On Dec. 15, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation reported that a whooping crane was found near Tom Steed Lake with a shotgun wound. The crane died while being taken to a veterinary clinic.

Injured whooping crane

Oklahoma Game Warden Jeremy Brothers approaches an injured whooping crane. The endangered bird later died from a shotgun wound. 

Later, three more whooping cranes were found dead in the same area where the first was found, the department said. Oklahoma and Texas officials are searching for the perpetrators.

“This is sickening to see such a wanton waste of wildlife, and our Game Wardens are very eager to visit with the individual or individuals who committed this crime,” Wade Farrar, assistant chief of law enforcement with the wildlife department, said in a statement.

There are only about 500 whooping cranes in North America. Killing one can lead to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine under the Endangered Species Act and another $15,000 with up to six months in jail under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the department said. The endangered bird is the tallest in North America.

The killings of the whooping cranes happened during Oklahoma’s sandhill crane hunting season, which began Oct. 23 and runs through Jan. 23, according to the Oklahoma wildlife department.

In past years, the sandhill crane hunting season has been temporarily shut down in Oklahoma if a whooping crane has been sighted. It’s unclear whether the sandhill hunting was suspended when the four whooping cranes were killed.

In Wisconsin, a proposed Republican bill would require the state Department of Natural Resources to authorize the hunting of sandhill cranes. The department would be able to limit the number of hunting permits issued for the sandhill cranes, and hunters would need to participate in a hunter education course before obtaining a permit.

CRANING SKYWARD

During a foraging stop along the shoreline of an ice-covered Lake Wingra, a pair of sandhill cranes squawk skyward in 2019. Sandhill cranes are light brown and gray in color — a contrast to the white plume of whooping cranes, an endangered species. But the birds can still be confused, especially in low light or during flight, prompting concern over a proposed sandhill crane hunt in Wisconsin. 

If the bill passes the state Legislature and is signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — who could use his veto power — the hunt could harm the state’s sandhill crane population unless the hunting season is carefully managed, the International Crane Foundation said. Sandhill cranes, currently a protected species, have recovered over the past 70 years after dwindling to just a couple dozen breeding pairs.

Supporters of the hunt say sandhill cranes are becoming overpopulated and causing damage to crops.

But Anne Lacy, senior manager in the North America programs at the International Crane Foundation, said there’s no measure for when the cranes would be overpopulated, and the crop problem is solvable.

Lacy said a hunt would “do nothing” to help address crop damage caused by sandhill cranes because most of the damage happens during the spring when cranes feed on seeds, but waterfowl hunting is limited to late summer or fall. The foundation helped develop a seed treatment that prevents cranes from damaging corn in the spring.

“Crop damage is something that can be solved right now,” Lacy said, adding that the seed treatment — not a hunting season — would fix the problem.

A hunt could also cause hunters to shoot whooping cranes accidentally, Lacy said. Adult whooping cranes are white with black wing tips and a red patch on the forehead. But young whooping cranes are brown in color and can easily be mistaken for sandhill cranes, even with hunter education, Lacy said.

“We can’t advocate for a hunting season if we believe that it might do indirect harm to the population or direct harm to something like the whooping crane,” Lacy said.

The Madison Audubon Society has also raised concerns about the potential sandhill crane hunt. The society notes that whooping cranes and sandhill cranes can be difficult to distinguish during flight.

Roughly 80 whooping cranes nest in Wisconsin each summer then migrate to the southeastern United States for the winter, according to the International Crane Foundation. Another group of cranes summers in northwestern Canada and travels to the gulf coast of Texas in the winter, including through Oklahoma.

“These are majestic birds,” Lacy said. “They’re a conservation success story.”

In a statement, foundation president and CEO Rich Beilfuss called the killing of the four whooping cranes in Oklahoma “an outrageous illegal shooting event.”

“We are angry and heartsick,” Beilfuss said. “The International Crane Foundation, along with many partners, has invested millions of dollars and decades of time and expertise to bring whooping cranes back from the brink of extinction. And in an instant four birds are gone forever.”

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