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FOX 11 Investigates: Sandhill cranes in Wisconsin

A Sandhill crane is seen in a Door County field July 14, 2017. (WLUK/Eric Peterson)

(WLUK) -- Sandhill cranes are the largest birds in Wisconsin. Once a rare sight, the population is now soaring.

That's causing issues for some farmers. Some say there are so many cranes in the state, there should be a Sandhill crane hunt.

Sandhill cranes have made quite the comeback.

“Sandhill cranes in Wisconsin are a remarkable conservation success story,” said Rich Beilfuss, president and CEO of the International Crane Foundation based in Baraboo. “Their numbers got very, very low during the early part of the century.”

While cranes nearly disappeared off the landscape 100 years ago, they're back and thriving.

“Here in Wisconsin we've gone from very few pairs in the 40s and 50s to, there's probably 18-20,000 that now migrate through the state. Some breed here and some migrate through the state each year,” Beilfuss said.

The birds in Wisconsin are part of what's called the eastern population of Sandhill cranes. In 1979, there were approximately 14,000 Sandhill cranes in the eastern population. Today, there are nearly 100,000.

Farmers across the state have noticed the boom in birds.

“Every year they're getting more and more and more,” said Randy Meyer who owns a small dairy farm in Manitowoc County. In late May, he got some bad news: 12 acres of corn was wiped out.

“There wasn't a single plant in here,” said Dave Endries who works part-time on the Meyer farm.

Endries has seen as many as 46 cranes in the field at one time.

“You're seeing more and more of them but we never thought they'd do this kind of damage,” Endries said.

Brian Madigan is a crop advisor with Country Visions Co-op. He showed us how the cranes can damage the crops.

“This is one that still survived but the Sandhill cranes went down and actually picked it apart,” Madigan said as he showed a plant. “It's root system has been pulled out. They'll get in there and actually eat the seed kernel off.

Kent Van Horn from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has seen plenty of crop damage from cranes in his career.

“After the corn is planted, and it comes up as a small shoot, the Sandhill cranes will walk down those rows and pull the little shoot up and they will eat the kernel. So, farmers can lose 20-50% of a field if they get a flock of Sandhill cranes and they're methodically going down every row and pulling up the kernels,” Van Horn said.

He says the first defense is for farmers to buy a special seed treatment designed to keep the cranes from eating the corn.

“(Cranes) pull the kernel up. They eat it. It tastes bad. It gives them indigestion and after a while they stop feeding,” Van Horn said.

But it doesn't always work, as Randy Meyer found out this year.

“I put treatment on the seed which had always worked pretty well but this year, for some reason, it didn't work,” Meyer said.

Van Horn says another option is for farmers to apply for special permit through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which allows them to shoot a limited number of cranes.

Under that program in 2012, 431 Sandhill cranes were killed in Wisconsin. Just four years later, in 2016, 809 cranes were killed.

Click here for more information about crane depredation permits including where cranes were killed in Wisconsin in 2016.

Some of those kill permits were issued to airports concerned about safety. Van Horn says the majority were issued to farmers. He says the farmers aren't even allowed to eat the cranes they shoot.

“Under a federally issued wildlife kill permit, they're not allowed to eat or use the animal because it's to control damage it's not a hunt. So, that obviously doesn't set well with a lot of people both from bird watchers to hunters that the birds are killed and then they can't be utilized,” Van Horn said.

Meyer decided a permit wasn't worth it.

“I could shoot five birds but what good is shooting five birds if you've got 47 birds in there?” Meyer said.

Meyer says he'd like to see a crane hunting season to help control the population.

“There's getting too many birds. They're going to have to open up a season,” Meyer said.

“We're really not looking for divisions between hunters and farmers and tree-hugger wildlife enthusiasts and all of us,” said Beilfuss from the International Crane Foundation.

Beilfuss says while he understands why farmers are concerned, his group does not support a crane hunt.

“We don't think it's a solution,” he said.

Beilfuss says any proposed hunt would be in the fall, not in the spring when crop damage is a concern. Plus, he says it wouldn't be a very extensive hunt.

“If there was a hunt in Wisconsin, it would be actually a lot less than what's being shot currently just on these farm permits. The estimates I've heard is maybe a couple hundred. So, do we want to create this huge, divisive issue in Wisconsin among people who want to be out working for the land for what's basically going to be a hunt experience for very few people? I don't know,” Beilfuss said.

Van Horn, who helped develop the management plan for Sandhill cranes in this part of the country, says the decision lies with state lawmakers.

“The federal rules are in place. The biology is in place. We know we can have a Sandhill crane hunt sustainably. All that's in place. So now it's just a social decision in the state of Wisconsin. Do the citizens of the state of Wisconsin want to participate in Sandhill crane hunting, or don't they?” Van Horn said.

Van Horn says cranes are already hunted in 16 other states.

“Many of our hunters go out of state to North Dakota and other places to hunt them and they're very good eating. They eat grains so their flesh is good for eating,” he said.

The same birds that nest in Wisconsin are hunted in Tennessee and Kentucky.

“Tennessee and Kentucky have established hunts and they're harvesting several hundred birds a year,” Van Horn said.

But Beilfuss says there's a big difference about Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin is a core breeding area for them whereas Kentucky and Tennessee are more migratory or in some cases wintering areas. So, it is different. We're talking about hunting on their breeding ground,” Beilfuss said.

The idea of a Sandhill crane hunt was brought up in Madison in 2012. A bill was introduced in the Wisconsin Assembly but it didn't go anywhere.

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