International Crane Foundation: One Health of the Land

Photo by Rich Beilfuss

International Crane Foundation’s (ICF’s) history is one that carries over the years and across different countries. Not many are aware of the work they do for cranes and the impact they have until they are introduced to cranes in some way, and visiting the 15 species of cranes at their headquarters in Baraboo, Wisconsin, is a good way to understand these large, impressive birds.

The mission of ICF is to work worldwide to conserve cranes and their ecosystems, watersheds, and flyways. Rich Beilfuss, president and CEO at ICF headquarters, has been working to save the world’s 15 species of cranes since the 1980s. “When I first started at ICF, I only knew of a few sandhill cranes (one of two crane species in the United States) here in Wisconsin, and now we have tens of thousands of sandhills that live here and move through the state. It’s an amazing recovery since 30 years ago. It’s unimaginable how much better they have done in this area.”

The reemergence of different crane species, most notably the whooping crane in North America, is due to the considerable efforts of many partnerships and organizations working towards the common goal of providing healthy and safe habitats for the cranes to thrive.

Photograph by International Crane Foundation

ICF works to secure the original whooping crane population that winters in Texas, stays there until about March, and then migrates to Canada to breed. Their breeding place in Canada is so remote that outsiders didn’t know about it until the 1950s. The program also produces whooping crane chicks to put back in the wild in the eastern United States to help bring the population back. “The last whooping cranes in Wisconsin were lost more than a century ago,” says Rich. “It’s been very exciting to bring them back.” They’ve been reintroducing chicks for more than 20 years. Rich’s motto on his work with the cranes, “save them in the wild first because it’s really expensive and difficult to reintroduce birds once they are lost.

“Cranes are easier to get to know because they are conspicuous and fun to watch, and they are also a flagship for conservation in that people may not care about every frog or insect, but people care about cranes. And they can help us restore and preserve habitats for many species. Tens of thousands of acres of land in China, for example, conserved for the cranes helps out lots of birds and other wildlife.”

Cranes also carry deep cultural significance, especially concerning religions in parts of Asia and Southeast Asia. They symbolize luck and good fortune in China, and they’re a traditional Japanese symbol of carrying the soul to heaven. “We take the traditional, cultural love of cranes and use our mutual respect to ensure the protection of the cranes in the wild,” says Rich.

Photograph by International Crane Foundation

Rich feels ICF’s first duty is to protect the cranes in the wild, and then to encourage people to support and spread the word about conservation around the world. There is no typical day at ICF or at the global offices in Africa, China, and Southeast Asia. The big picture is land management, working with governments, local communities, and other partners or organizations to do conservation in these areas.

“The crane world, our mission, takes us way out of what you would really think of saving cranes in a narrow way. We help create and improve the management of many national parks and other protected areas, for example. We have a 20-year agreement with the Government of Zambia for the Kafue Flats, which is probably the most important wetland in southern Africa, hugely important for lots of birds and animals, and we have a similar 5-year agreement in the lush green valleys of Mongolia to manage a new nature reserve. These kinds of partnerships with local governments help to bring the security we need to crane habitats for the long term to help manage them better, and I’m excited for these long-term agreements.”

An emphasis on the direct link to the cranes and people all sharing the land, Rich’s involvement working on numerous programs aims to avoid the divide of people versus cranes, instead getting people to see cranes as part of a healthy landscape. “We try to work towards a relationship that is more in harmony, that is not always perfect but a lot of times there are compatible solutions that don’t need to be the either/or fights.”

Photograph by Griffin Shanungu

Another imperative step in saving the cranes and their land are the affiliations ICF makes with its international partners and organizations. “A big part of what we do is maintain great relationships with local partners. We have strong teams at our worldwide sites that are run by the local people.”

Rich lovingly calls those committed to conserving cranes and spreading the word about saving their environments “craniacs.” Those craniacs and others involved in the 10-million-dollar renovation at ICF, which took two years to unveil due to the pandemic, have once again shown their determination and dedication. Rich says, “We have a beautiful new visitor center with new interpretative exhibits. Our new crane exhibits are open air, a full immersion experience with the birds. The exhibits feature beautifully planted wetlands and grasslands, and many of them have background murals aimed at transporting you to where the birds are native in the wild. Visitors can watch the birds feeding and dancing in this naturalistic setting with dramatic scenes in the background.”

Rich and everyone involved with ICF are eagerly awaiting the reopening on May 1. “We are excited to open and use our remodel to more deeply connect with people to the beauty and challenges of saving the cranes around the world. Hopefully people will see real relevance for cranes that work for healthy waters and lands, working to reduce the effects of climate change and the things we care about.”

Krystle Engh Naab is a freelance writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

International Crane Foundation

E11376 Shady Lane Road
Baraboo, WI 53913
(608) 356-9462

To learn more about ICF’s new site and exhibits, check out their article in Home Elements & Concepts then go to to plan your trip.