Truth refutes crane hunt

Facts are stubborn things. Facts still matter. The truth matters. And the truth will prevail as more is learned about the distortions and half-truths foisted on the public by those proposing a recreational hunting season on Michigan’s sandhill cranes.

Curtseying to the hunting lobby, Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, pushed through a House resolution last fall that endorses a sandhill crane hunt. The Michigan Songbird Protection Coalition joined the many wildlife protection organizations and bird enthusiasts across Michigan who oppose removing non-game status protections that have been in place for over 100 years.

Most disturbing is how Lower used smoke and mirrors to manipulate facts to fit his misguided agenda. In a House Natural Resources Committee hearing he delivered a presentation that included a photo of several sandhill cranes swarming a farm tractor. The implicit message was that these majestic birds are so numerous that they are unafraid of human interaction, and thus ready to pounce on newly planted seed corn.

But the birds in the photo were not sandhill cranes; they were eurasian cranes conditioned to actually feed from tractors. The caption in the USDA report that it was lifted from clearly identified the photo was taken in Israel — 6,000 miles from Michigan.

When confronted with that fact, Lower’s response was dismissive. He told a reporter the photo didn’t have “any real bearing” on the issue or the approval of his resolution, and added, “Frankly, I don’t think it matters.”

Facts matter. The truth matters.

Here’s one indisputable fact: Sandhill cranes, Michigan’s oldest and largest birds, were nearly wiped out by hunting in the 20th century. They are a recovering species that remain protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is having some truth challenges of its own. A DNR spokesman says the department is neutral on a sandhill crane hunting season. But Freedom of Information Act records obtained by the songbird coalition show that behind the scenes, a different narrative has developed. In an email on the topic of opening a recreational hunt on sandhill cranes, DNR Wildlife Chief Russ Mason is quoted as saying, “…this is one I could get behind.”

Further, while the DNR has claimed neutrality on the issue, in an email, Mason urged the Michigan Natural Resources Commission (NRC) to manufacture support for a sandhill crane hunt by encouraging two members of the Michigan Farm Bureau to help them lobby for it.

The DNR can’t have it both ways, publicly claiming to be neutral on the issue but secretly doing everything it can to promote the creation of a hunting season.

One more truth-twisting example: Even if the DNR and the NRC pushed for a sandhill crane hunt, written records from Mason said, “…(it would) still take three years to put it on the ground.”

But Mason’s argument that this is a far-off prospect is undercut by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s migratory bird program. In a recent news account, migratory bird program chief Tom Cooper made it sound like a done deal. If Michigan followed the plan laying out a sandhill crane harvest strategy, Cooper said, “…the Fish and Wild life Service would likely grant them a season.”

Lower and hunting lobbyists claim sandhill cranes should be hunted because there are too many of them. However, there is no evidence of overpopulation in Michigan.

While sandhill cranes have staged a comeback, scientists still consider them to be a genetically vulnerable species, due in part to being overhunted, the birds’ slow reproductive cycle and because they usually hatch just one chick per pair each breeding season — which may not survive to its first birthday.

As the debate over sandhill cranes goes forward, the songbird coalition respectfully asks that all parties in the discussion stick to the facts — and let the public decide. We believe the facts will fall squarely on the side that opposes a sandhill crane hunt.

Julie Baker is the director of the Michigan Songbird Protection Coalition.