International Crane Foundation

Photo by DZ Johnson

Driving past the water slides of the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells, you may be surprised to discover that on the other side of the interstate highway, closer to Baraboo, lives the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a world-renowned conservation center dedicated to the preservation of cranes. A charismatic species deeply revered by cultures across the world, cranes are facing threats of extinction. Today, 11 of the world’s 15 species are considered threatened or endangered.

ICF is a non-profit organization dedicated to the research, conservation, and habitat protection of cranes worldwide. In 1973, Dr. George Archibald and Dr. Ron Sauey—two Cornell University crane researchers—founded ICF with a small portion of farmland lent to them by Dr. Sauey’s parents. More than 40 years later, that parental loan has grown into the only facility in the world with all 15 varieties of cranes. That includes the four endangered species—the Grey Crowned, Red-crowned, Siberian, and Whooping cranes. “We are a unique, science-based research organization that allows visitors to have an interactive experience with every species of crane,” says Cully Shelton, Interpretive Programs Manager. It is often Cully, who has a degree in Outdoor and Environmental Education, guiding visitors through that experience. “It’s great because when visitors come see these cranes, they are directly supporting the preservation work we’re conducting around the world.”

Photo by Christina Beam

More than 25,000 people visit ICF every year. With more than 250 acres of restored natural prairie, visitors have the unique ability to see all 15 species on its grounds. A monogamous and territorial bird known for their love of dancing, the average lifespan of a crane is about 20 to 30 years. Two varieties—Sandhill and Whooping cranes—are naturally found in Wisconsin. In addition to serving as a captive breeding center, ICF is a worldwide hub for crane research and collaboration, and acts as an advocate for strengthening wetlands and water protections. More than 70 percent of their funding—which comes in through individual donations, memberships, and grants—goes directly back into habitat conservation, wetlands restoration, and improving the livelihood of cranes.

As wetlands continue to be encroached upon by new construction and development, crane habitats are disappearing worldwide. “We work on all levels and all scales when it comes to protecting wetlands and water,” says Cully. “If you want to reintroduce endangered species to the wild, but there is no habitat available—there is no point.” In addition to their headquarters in Baraboo, they have field offices in Texas, Cambodia, China, India, South Africa, Vietnam, and Zambia—all critical areas with native crane populations. In the United States, there is only one flock of naturally migrating Whooping cranes left. Highly monitored by ICF, these Whooping cranes flock to the Corpus Christi area of Texas each winter and are at the center of much of their work.

With about 50 employees worldwide, ICF relies on partnerships with scientists from other organizations for support. Their most powerful allies, however, remain the local citizens in the countries where they work. “We try to take a unique perspective to conservation by getting local communities involved, because the same models don’t work for every country,” states Cully. ICF hires and works with local residents in each country in hopes of improving the livelihood of not only cranes, but the communities they live in as well. Because every country regulates endangered species differently, ICF usually works in joint collaboration with government, universities, and non-profits. In Africa—a continent facing a myriad of tough issues, including climate change, government corruption, illegal captive trading, and resource allocation—it is especially crucial to get local community members involved. With four of the 15 crane species found in Africa, it is an important breeding ground for continuing growth of these crane populations.

Photo by Ted Thousand

Research also plays a key role in their preservation work. In order to breed cranes in captivity, ICF scientists have developed special isolation rearing techniques, which allow biologists wearing puppets to rear a chick (instead of its mother). This approach makes caring for a greater number of crane chicks in captivity possible and helps prepare these chicks for release into the wild. ICF has also worked with farmers to develop new techniques to fend off crop damage that results from Sandhill cranes eating corn seedlings. To remedy this issue, ICF tested and partners developed Avipel, a non-toxic, plant-derived substance that is put on corn seeds before they are planted in the spring. It keeps cranes away by convincing them, with a stomachache, that the corn seedlings are no longer edible without destroying the corn crop.

Advocacy is crucial to the successful preservation of cranes and crane habitats. ICF relies heavily on public advocates to spread the word and offers field trips around the world to those looking to take their fundraising a step further. In the past, trips have taken place everywhere from Nebraska to Mongolia to Japan and highlight the work of ICF by bringing supporters directly to crane conservation sites. Those 25,000 yearly visitors are also imperative to funding the organization. ICF will re-open to the public starting April 15. Public hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., with guided tours running three times per day (Memorial Day through Labor Day) at 10:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m.

“For as long as humans have been on this earth, cranes have been on this earth,” says Cully, as we stand next to a pair of Sarus cranes communicating with one another via a series of harmonized unison calls. Standing a massive six feet tall with a reddish-orange head and neck, they demand to be noticed. “They have always been important to maintaining the health of our wetlands and ecosystems, and they need water and a place to live just as much as us.”

Holly Whittlef is a freelance designer and writer who lives in Madison, and blogs about her love of good design
and food at Hollis Anne.

International Crane Foundation
E-11376 Shady Lane Road
Baraboo, WI 53913