MADISON, Wis. - To bird lovers, sandhill cranes are majestic creatures whose cries hearken back to prehistoric times. To others, they're the rib-eye of the sky.
A Wisconsin lawmaker has quietly proposed a bill that would let hunters blast the birds to stop them from chewing up farmers' cornfields. The legislation promises to spark a bitter debate in state that is both defined by its deep-rooted hunting traditions and serves as home to the International Crane Foundation, one of the world's premier crane protection organizations.
"I don't think this is the state to push for a crane hunt," said Karen Etter Hale, a vice president of the Wisconsin Audubon Council. "If hunters want to further damage their reputations by pushing for yet another species to hunt, then that's what they should do."
Sandhill cranes, tall, elegant birds with a wing span that can reach 5 feet and a call that sounds like a velociraptor crossed with a pteronodon, are found throughout North America and eastern Siberia. They're not to be confused with whooping cranes, the birds famous for trailing ultralights to their winter homes.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates the sandhill is now the most abundant crane species in the world with a population of around 600,000. Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario, Canada, have become the core nesting grounds for what's known as the eastern population, a flock of about 70,000 birds that move up and down the eastern half of the United States.
Thirteen states, mostly in the U.S. mid-section, have now implemented hunts. Kentucky became the most recent in December when it launched a limited hunt, but it went over with a collective shrug. The state issued 342 permits and hunters killed just 50 birds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated Wisconsin's sandhill population stood at about 25,000 in late October, according to data provided by the Wisconsin DNR. They've etched a special place in the heart of Wisconsin bird lovers and the Baraboo-based International Crane Foundation has become a world-renowned authority on cranes and their habitat, performing research and advising scientists. Thousands of schoolchildren visit the foundation every year.
But as the sandhill population grows, more Wisconsin farmers have been complaining about sandhills eating their corn seeds and fledgling stalks. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, federal wildlife officials issued 55 permits to landowners in southern Wisconsin to kill problem cranes last year, up from 16 in 2008.
State Rep. Joel Kleefisch, an Oconomowoc Republican and avid duck hunter, quietly began circulating a bill Tuesday that would require the DNR to create a sandhill season.
Under the bill, farmers would be allowed to seek state compensation for sandhill crop damage. Hunters with a small-game license who take a sandhill hunting course could legally kill the bird. The DNR would be allowed to limit the harvest and the number of hunters, however.
"Many call (sandhill cranes) the rib-eye of the sky," Kleefisch said. "When I was a kid, you never saw a sandhill crane. Now you never go water-fowl hunting without seeing them. They're beautiful animals that deserve to be respected. At the same time we have a strong heritage of fishing and hunting in Wisconsin and it's time we looked at a potential season."
The bill fits a hunting culture that runs deep in this state. The state is the go-to destination for deer hunting every fall; children routinely take days off from school to join in. In 2003, legislators decided to let people to hunt mourning doves, the state's official peace symbol. Currently legislators are pondering a wolf hunt.
Bird advocates are already balking at the sandhill plan. They fear hunters might mistake whoopers for sandhills. They also argue that hunters can't possibly kill enough cranes to make any real difference in crop damage and should instead use chemical repellants on their seeds.
"I don't think any management is necessary other than protection of their habitat," said Noel Cutright, the Wisconsin Society of Orinthology's historian. "Hunting has no role in that in my estimation. A species is here for the entire population of the people of Wisconsin."
The ICF hasn't taken a stance on sandhill hunting, preferring to remain neutral so its data and statistics are seen as objective. Still, the foundation's ecology director, Jeb Barzen, said hunting won't solve crop damage problems.
"You're telling farmers you're giving them a solution when you're not," Barzen said.
Paul Zimmerman, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said repellants just drive the cranes to a neighbor's corn. He pointed out sandhills have made a significant comeback and populations have stabilized.
"We're not asking for cranes to be wiped out or anything extreme like that," he said. " ... but we want to make sure farmers aren't just feeding them on behalf of everyone else."
Marlin Laidlow of Marshfield is the chairman of the agricultural damage committee for the Conservation Congress, an influential group of sportsmen who advise the DNR. He said sandhill crop damage hasn't been a huge issue for his committee, but the population is growing out of control.
"It's fun to see (sandhills) around but at the same time, if you look at it, it's not all good," he said. "The problem with the people who don't understand wildlife and wildlife management, they join an organization and fall in love with a particular species. As far as they're concerned, you can't have too many. They just don't get it. You've got to control populations."
The bill's fate is uncertain. The legislative session ends in mid-March, and a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said the bill isn't a top priority.