Greater sandhill crane pairs return to Seedskadee NWR in late March and early April. They immediately begin to re-establish a nesting territory and will begin nest building/repair activities. This pair was out for a mid morning foraging stroll, looking for meadow voles, crayfish, and invertebrates. The invertebrates are found by probing the damp soils and by flipping over the cow pies left from the prescribed grazing conducted during the winter. Photo: Tom Koerner/USFW

In the world of wildlife conservation, it is important to celebrate success stories, and the story of Sandhill Cranes has surely been one worth celebrating. Stanley Temple, Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, can help tell the story.

Until 1918 when the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act protected them, Sandhill Cranes were killed by commercial hunters who sold them at market and by grain farmers who regarded them as crop pests. They disappeared from most Midwestern states, and there were only a few dozen breeding pairs in Wisconsin by the 1930s. Aldo Leopold even anticipated their eventual disappearance from Wisconsin in his 1937 essay “Marshland Elegy.” After a decades-long recovery period the cranes are now back, and their numbers have swelled to around 100,000 across the Upper Midwest. Each Fall almost 10,000 cranes now use a stretch of the Wisconsin River near Aldo Leopold’s famous Shack as a staging area before flying south for the winter

“Leopold lamented the decline of sandhill cranes in Wisconsin, and he never imagined the day would come when the marvelous sights and sounds of flocks of thousands would be a regular autumnal phenomenon near his beloved Shack,” wrote Temple in a recent series of essays for the Aldo Leopold Foundation, where he is a Senior Fellow.

As described in the essay, 35 years ago, Temple and his students studied Sandhill Cranes and described the broader pattern of crane migration that leads to this type of convergence at places like the Wisconsin River. Now, he helps lead crane-watching field trips at the site for the Aldo Leopold Foundation

Temple’s essay delves into the prospect of starting a crane hunt in WI, considering all the perspectives on the controversial debate over whether or not it should take place, as does a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the topic featuring Temple.

“I imagine [Leopold] would have been thrilled by the Sandhill Crane’s remarkable recovery, and encouraged that today’s wildlife managers have advanced the field he defined so that we can now manage crane hunts without threatening the species,” says Temple. “I also expect he would have been heartened to see that the debate has taken on an ethical dimension.”

For more information, the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo is the go-to source for everything about cranes.