Sandhill cranes are believed to be the oldest birds on the planet. 100 years ago, the sight of them in Michigan or anywhere else was exceedingly rare. They had been hunted close to extinction along with most other game species by the out of control commercial market hunters of the 1800s. This was the wild west of hunting where industrial tools were applied to killing wild animals for sale. No real regulation had been established to control or manage hunting in any way. Essentially it was a much different time and manner of hunting than what takes place today.
In 1918, The sandhill crane was protected in perpetuity by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This act was originally an agreement by The United States and Great Britain (then in possession of Canada) to regulate and protect the migratory species listed under the act. The act specifically addressed birds that migrate from the south to Canada every year. Control of these birds was taken by treaty with the notion that because of their migratory nature they did not belong to one specific state, but rather should be regulated by joint treaty. Most of the birds in the act are completely protected, though several classes of birds that are historically game species are designated as such. The US government has the authority to grant a license to the states for regulated hunting of such species as duck, geese, pigeons, doves, and cranes.
Michigan has not had a legal hunt open for Sandhill Cranes for at least 100 years. However, 16 states do allow controlled and regulated hunting of them. Their annual population is estimated at 400-600,000 in the United States and the population in Michigan is estimated at 20,000. The meat is nicknamed the “Ribeye of the Sky” and is prized for its lean and juicy texture that compares favorably to duck and goose breasts.
There have been several attempts in recent years to allow a hunt for them in Michigan. The federal government has said that if the state DNR asks for permission to have a hunt they will grant it. Michigan House and Senate resolutions were drafted in 2017 and 2019 recommending the Natural Resources Commission ask the federal government to allow a Michigan Sandhill Crane hunt. The 2019 resolution is currently in Committee. To date, there has been no further action towards allowing a hunt.
The Michigan Audobon society has been one of the most vocal opponents to having a Sandhill Crane hunt. In opposition, they cite the endangered status of the bird from 100 years ago and concerns that history will repeat itself. The rest of their oppositional evidence is completely anecdotal and an attempt to play on the emotions of bird enthusiasts. Another objection of theirs is that the Sandhill Crane is still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This of course ignores the fact that they are specifically listed under game species in the act which means they have a documented history of being hunted. So much has changed since the market hunting of the 1800s and early 1900s that to compare it to current regulated hunting is akin to comparing a horse and buggy to a modern car.
With a healthy population that migrates through Michigan every year, there is no reason we cannot hunt the birds in a well-regulated manner as we do with our other game species. Our current system of hunter driven conservation has proven successful in managing populations like ducks, geese, deer, turkey, black bear, and small game. I have every bit of faith that if allowed to legally hunt Sandhill Cranes we would do so with the same regard for and appreciation of the resource.