A long-legged wetlands bird and a oft-spotted gray dove in southern Michigan could become the latest game species in Michigan, if hunters have their way.
The Michigan United Conservation Clubs, at its annual convention earlier this month, passed two measures by the required two-thirds vote of participants, to seek both sandhill crane and mourning dove hunting seasons in Michigan.
State Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist Barbara Avers said DNR officials are "continuing to have conversations with conservation organizations" about potential hunts. The department has no position on the hunts, Avers said, but would provide technical advice to the state Natural Resources Commission should it consider the proposal.
The proposal comes a little more than a decade after Michigan voters, in a 2006 statewide referendum, overwhelmingly rejected mourning dove hunting in Michigan.
"Michigan voters could not have been more clear: They don't want their songbirds hunted," said Julie Baker, director of the Lansing-based nonprofit Michigan Songbird Protection Coalition.
MUCC spokesman Nick Green said it's a matter of "proper management of the species," with the DNR's scientific consultation on what levels of allowed harvest are appropriate to maintaining healthy populations of the birds.
Sandhill cranes were believed eliminated from Michigan by the late 1800s, largely because of over-hunting. But the bird then returned over decades, and began to experience a resurgence.
"We've noticed almost an exponential population increase," Avers said.
And with it has come conflict with farmers. Cranes uproot young shoots of corn in the spring and eat the kernels. The birds are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but farmers can apply to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for special permits to eradicate birds damaging their crops.
The number of farmer nuisance permits granted by the service to kill sandhill cranes in Michigan increased from 13 permits in 2006 to 85 permits in 2013 and 2014, according to a DNR analysis of statewide sandhill crane populations published in February.
About 2,002 sandhill cranes were federally authorized for killing under the Fish and Wildlife Service's permits issued to Michigan farmers in 2013, with 1,216 of the targeted birds killed.
"Despite the growth of cranes under permit, the Michigan crane population grew at a rate of 8.2% over the period 2003-2013," the DNR report states.
"Farmers are shooting them and leaving them lay. The carcasses are rotting," Green said. "If there's that much of an issue, we support allowing hunters to ethically harvest these animals and eat them."
But Baker said there's no scientific proof that a fall sandhill crane hunting season would alleviate the crop-damage problem. Repellents are more effective on farms than culling flocks of cranes, she said.
"The sandhill crane is a very vulnerable and recovering species," she said. "They were nearly wiped out by hunting and loss of habitat. They've been protected as non-game animals for over 100 years in Michigan."
Fifteen U.S. states have sandhill crane hunting seasons in at least portions of their state. The state hunts also require U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approval because of the cranes' federal migratory bird protection.
As for mourning doves, Michigan is one of only eight U.S. states with no hunt for them, and the only state in the Midwest without a mourning dove hunt. The DNR, Natural Resources Commission and hunting groups have, at various times, tried to institute a hunt, finally succeeding in 2004, when Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed into law a trial season in six western counties of Lower Michigan.
But the dove hunt was halted by a petition-driven referendum that ended up on the statewide ballot in November 2006. Voters rejected mourning dove hunting by a margin of 69%-31%. The hunt was voted down in each of Michigan's 83 counties.
"People are very opposed to shooting mourning doves," Baker said. "These are their backyard songbirds."
Green, however, said Michigan should follow the lead of other states allowing dove hunts.
"Eventually, there will be an overpopulation" without proper management of the species, he said.
Avers said conversations with hunting groups "are just now getting started," and that it may be awhile before the Natural Resources Commission is asked to begin considering any proposal.
Michigan residents have raised more than $23 million since 1983 for the state's Nongame Wildlife Fund, through checked-off donations on state income tax forms and from specialized car license plates. Those funds have been used in the past on measures related to both sandhill cranes and mourning doves.
"Citizens should be able to play a part in protecting non-game wildlife," Baker said.
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