Sandhill Cranes as a Window on Climate Change

Rich Beilfuss

There is a very good reason why a photo of two sandhill cranes are on the cover of the brochure announcing the 5th annual Door County Climate Change Forum.

“Cranes are already suffering from problems that already exist and climate change will make their problems worse,” said Rich Beilfuss, president and CEO of the Baraboo-based International Crane Foundation and one of the keynote speakers for the May 19 Climate Change Forum. “What I want to to do is look at the family of cranes as a window to understanding the impact of climate change.”

Beilfuss realizes it is hard for people to get their minds around climate change and its possible impacts.

“My take is that we need to distill it down to understanding its impact on things we care about,” he said. “We know there are a lot of really bad scenarios and serious change is already happening. The more we can understand that, the more we can appreciate the risk of not doing anything about it.”

Since cranes are “big, conspicuous, charismatic birds,” Beilfuss hopes they will help “us get our minds around how climate change can affect species.”

“Cranes are going to get hit pretty hard by climate change in places where they are pretty revered,” he said. “I’m hoping it’s a species that gets attention like polar bears. That’s the hope, too, they can be one of those charismatic species to get people to care. They are definitely in peril.”

Beilfuss points out that while the sandhill crane is doing fine, that’s not true of all its cousins. His work brings him often to Africa, where there are 10 endangered crane species. Only one species is endangered in the U.S., the whooping crane.

“There is a whole range of ways climate change is playing out on cranes,” he said, mentioning the effects of polar and glacial meltdown, river flows and runoffs, loss of wetlands and rising sea levels as a threat to habitat.

“Put climate change on top of the threats to habitat already happening and you get a theory of conservation challenge, a very negative prediction for a number of species that a lot of people care about.”

In fact, Beilfuss said, actual observations are coming in a lot worse than earlier predictions of the damage climate change would cause.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty how this is playing out, but certainly it’s very concerning,” he said.

Other forum speakers include Greg Nemet, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability & the Global Environment, speaking on, Making the Transition to a Clean Global Energy System Through Innovation; Tim Kabat, mayor of La Crosse, and Keith Reopelle, director of Dane County’s Office of Energy & Climate Change, will tag team for a presentation called Local Responsibility, Local Leadership, Local Action.

The day begins at 8 am with a continental breakfast at the Stone Harbor Conference Center, Sturgeon Bay. The event is $30 at the door and includes lunch. For more information visit

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