It doesn’t often make local news headlines, but a 300-acre campus in Baraboo is home to the globally renowned International Crane Foundation, which works to conserve cranes, their habitats and the flyways they use.
There are 15 species of cranes around in the world. The birds are cultural icons in Asia and important tools for broader conservation initiatives, according to the group. Wisconsin is home to one of the largest species of cranes by population, the sandhill crane.
The International Crane Foundation employs 80 people and also has a regional base in China. It shares program offices with partner organizations in Cambodia, India, South Africa, Texas, Vietnam and Zambia.
Rich Beilfuss is the group’s president and CEO. He spoke with the Cap Times about ICF's work, its upcoming renovation and what it’s like working with scientists in countries with which the United States has political disputes.
Why was this international foundation established in Baraboo and why has it stayed?
We’re an anomaly. Much of our work is overseas in Asia and Africa. Our biggest impact is overseas and yet we’re in rural Wisconsin. It seems strange to people. When George Archibald and Ron Sauey started the organization, they were doing a lot of graduate work on captive cranes and they were looking for a facility where they could manage cranes as far as species goes. Ron’s family was from the Baraboo area and offered that space, and that was essentially the reason at the time.
Over the years, more and more of our work has focused on field conservation. More than 90 percent of what we do is conservation around the world with endangered cranes. We now have offices in China and India and South Africa and in Zambia and Uganda and in Texas, so we’ve really expanded out and have more staff and close partners.
It’s true we could be in New York or Washington where a lot of the organizations we work with are, but we have a unique grounding in rural Wisconsin. Our site is naturally restored in Wisconsin’s historical landscape. It’s the natural pre-European settlement landscape of Wisconsin, so living in a natural ecosystem like we have really influences our work worldwide. It’s very funny because I meet often with people in New York and D.C. and as much as we feel disconnected from those big hubs, they feel disconnected from the environment they’re trying to save. When you’re in high rises in New York or D.C., you’re pretty disconnected from the land. We have a very strong connection to the land, it influences our thinking and what we do. There is a lot of value to being here. There is real value to our rural grounding.
The Crane Foundation is planning a renovation. What will that entail?
Basically it’s a facelift. We have 15 species of crane in the world right now. Of those 15 species, we have five of those 15 that are in what we consider high-quality modern exhibits. We are updating the other 10, so all 15 species will be in new exhibits. We’ll create viewing opportunities that are in open air so people can get photos of birds. We’ll have a new visitors center. The exhibits we’re replacing are around early 1980s, over 35 years old. It’s time to make those changes.
We’re committed to native landscaping. We use murals and objects to draw people in to those places so they have a better sense of where they are in the wild.
When people visit us, our goal isn’t for people to see a zoo, but it’s really to connect to the places where we work around the world and generate some empathy and concern for how endangered these birds are in the wild. With our remodel, we’ll do a lot more with connecting people to the places where we work: China, Cambodia, India, Zambia and in Kenya, Uganda. That’s what we want people to come away with. This is an opportunity to connect them to the places we feel really matter.
How much does it cost and when will work begin?
It's $10 million. We are going to break ground this year, probably in the fall, and then reopen in 2019, about a year later. We’ll stay open for some events and tours but close down, and then (have) a grand opening, hopefully later in 2019.
Why should people care about cranes?
My elevator pitch is that cranes themselves are basically the most endangered family of birds in the world. Extinction is forever and we’re working to prevent the extinction of these birds. By working for crane conservation we can do so much broader conservation of the land. If you look around the world, definitely some of the most important wetlands in the world have been saved, in large part, because of the large crane populations there. We’re about cranes, but we’re about so much more. By working to save cranes, you have to save the big important places they depend on.
What makes cranes distinct?
They’re the tallest flying birds in the world. The tallest bird in North America is the whooping crane. The tallest is the Sarus crane in India. They are strikingly tall, the tallest ones are 6 foot. They can look you eye-to-eye.
I think they have striking beauty. You see that we have fancy wedding kimonos from Japan that have cranes on them. They are in artwork everywhere in China, in Korea and Japan. Another really unique thing about cranes is how they have a two-part harmony. They sing together with different parts. When the call becomes highly synchronized is when they begin breeding. Their pairs are strong, they mate for life. You can follow them the way you follow a family.
Females raise one or two chicks each year with a lot of parental attention.
What has it been like working in countries like China, Russia and North Korea where the U.S. hasn't always had the best political relations?
Cranes really are ambassadors for international conservation work. We’ve been working in Russia, China. We’ve done a lot of work in North Korea and Iran. We work with a lot of countries the U.S. has poor, and getting poorer, relationships.
We were in China within a couple of years when China reopened under (President Richard) Nixon and we’ve been in there since the 1970s. We’ve worked strongly in Russia throughout, back when it was the Soviet Union.
We’re having enormous difficulty doing work in North Korea, but we continue to provide them support. (The Demilitarized Zone) is one of the last green belts of that region and we’re trying to work to protect it. There is no hostility with people trying to do this work. We have these countries where we are hollering at them politically all the time but we have relationships with scientists. There are good people trying to do good things everywhere.
Cranes are ambassadors for conservation but in the truest sense of the word, they are an international bird of peace and that’s a really big part of what we do.