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Experts say species still could thrive with wolf, crane hunts

RON SEELY | Wisconsin State Journal

This story appeared first in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.

Some state wildlife experts and even hunting proponents say Republicans may have over-reached last week in putting forth back-to-back proposals to hunt formerly endangered gray wolves and sandhill cranes, and there could be a backlash from non-hunters.

“It’s just lousy timing,” said Scott Craven, a recently retired UW-Madison wildlife ecologist. With the wolf just removed last month from the endangered species list, the non-hunting public is probably perplexed by what seems like a rush to hunt a species on which so much time and money was spent to restore and protect.

“I don’t blame the public for being confused,” Craven said. “It scares people to the point where there will be pushback to the whole idea.”

Even so, Craven and many wildlife management experts believe hunting seasons could be established for both wolves and cranes without jeopardizing the health of either population.

Both wolves and sandhill cranes were nearly wiped out from Wisconsin because of excessive hunting and trapping and destruction of their natural habitats. But recovery programs by the state Department of Natural Resources and years of work by groups including the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo saw the species return to their old haunts. The state is now home to more than 1,000 wolves and as many as 25,000 sandhills.

Sandhill cranes especially are viewed almost reverentially by many, partly because of the writings of famed naturalists including Aldo Leopold. Awareness of cranes also has been fostered by the International Crane Foundation and its work around the world.

George Meyer, director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said his organization supports a highly controlled wolf hunt but has not taken a stand on a proposed sandhill crane hunting season, which he believes could spark a backlash.

Why hunt wolves and sandhill cranes at all?

Proponents of the hunts and wildlife managers defend hunting as a way to control populations that they say have grown large enough to cause conflicts with humans. Backers of the bills cite livestock depredations by wolves and crop damage by sandhill cranes.

At last week’s hearing before the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on the proposed wolf hunt, Dick Thiel, the retired DNR scientist who started the state’s wolf recovery program, said controlling wolf populations through hunting is necessary to prevent public sentiment from turning against the wolf.

But he also warned that a hunting season that is hastily put together and isn’t based on science could invite court challenges that could also jeopardize wolf management.

Science, for example, does not necessarily justify a crane hunting season on grounds it would limit damage they do to crops, said Jeb Barzen, director of field ecology with the International Crane Foundation, which has not taken a stand for or against a crane hunting season. Farmers already can treat their crops to fend off hungry cranes at a cost of between $5 and $7 an acre, he said.

Barzen added there hasn’t been much thought given to what to do once a species has been brought back from the brink.

“We’re sitting here like the dog that caught the car wondering what we do now,” Barzen said.

Rick Bogle, with the Alliance for Animals, said managers should consider leaving wildlife populations alone. He pointed out that many hunting seasons have nothing to do with population control or making use of the animal. “We have a crow season in Wisconsin,” Bogle said. “What do you do with crows?”

Ultimately, according to Bob Hofsman, an associate professor of wildlife at the UW-Stevens Point, the debate gets down to why people hunt and what can seem a contradiction between hunters’ professed love for an animal and their willingness to kill it.

Last week, for example, state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, who proposed the crane hunt, said cranes are “the rib-eye of the sky” and also “beautiful animals that deserve to be respected.”

“Even hunters aren’t very good at explaining that paradox,” said Hofsman. “The central question is, ‘Do you accept that it is morally OK to use animals for human purposes?’ If you eat meat, you’ve answered that question. Hunters are just more visible and more outspoken in the choice they’ve made.”