Protecting the Sandhill Crane

Does the state of Tennessee really need to open a season on sandhill cranes?

by Julie Zickefoose

Those of you who read my blog know that it’s a shiny happy place. But I got a letter from a friend in Tennessee that made me grind my teeth, and the more bird watchers know about it, the better.

Many birders are unaware that sandhill cranes, those stately pewter-gray icons of primeval wildness, are shot for sport and food all up and down the Central Flyway of the United States. I remember where I was standing when I found out that mid-continental sandhill cranes are considered a game bird, and could be shot in every state where they occur except Nebraska. It was on a raised dike at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache NWR, and on hearing gunshots near one of Bosque’s borders I asked around with refuge personnel. Yes, they’re hunted in New Mexico, right outside the refuge boundary. Wait a minute. We’re here celebrating the Festival of the Cranes, while they’re being killed just over the refuge border? Knowing that the millions of snow geese were being hunted was one thing, but learning that cranes are on the list of hunted species was another. Seeing men with blinds and decoys waiting to shoot the cranes as they skeined over, trying to reach the refuge, took the realization to yet another level. It has taken years for me to think about this in any but the most primal of ways.

I thought I had it wrestled to the ground, even wrote an article for Bird Watcher’s Digest about the whole thing. (You can hear me read it on Bill Thompson’s podcast, This Birding Life. See episode #19, Love and Death Among the Cranes.) When several hunters wrote to congratulate me on how “balanced” my take was, I thought I might have evolved to a point where I could embrace crane hunting as well as crane watching (I’m definitely in the blind with the bird watchers on this one).

And then along came that letter from my conservationist/activist friend Janet McKnight, announcing that Tennessee is contemplating launching a hunting season on sandhill cranes. And I de-evolved, but for good reason, I think. It seems that for 17 years, the state wildlife officials planted as much as 750 acres of feed crops in order to encourage large flocks of sandhill cranes to linger for thousands of appreciative viewers at the 6,000-acre Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County. Thousands of sandhill cranes stop to feed while migrating during the fall and winter between Wisconsin and Florida. While the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission cites counts upward of 48,000, those figures are currently in dispute. Tennessee started a festival around the event, just for wildlife watchers. The cranes liked the superabundant food, and a lot of them decided to hang around and spend the winter in Tennessee. The state’s response? Cancel the 17-year-old annual festival, and propose a hunting season on cranes.

It’s bad PR. It’s a shot in the foot for Tennessee’s Watchable Wildlife outreach. If it’s an attempt to resuscitate the slowly dying sport of hunting, it’s ill-advised, and unlikely to have the desired effect. It’s bound to be an extremely polarizing move, sending the anti-hunting and the hunting crowds even farther apart philosophically. You don’t feed, encourage, and celebrate a large, lovely, charismatic species for 17 years, attracting thousands of devotees who travel each year just to admire it, and then turn around and kill it in front of them.

Tennessee’s feeding program—750 acres of feed crops planted for ducks and geese—interrupted the cranes’ natural migratory behavior. And their solution is to cut back somewhat on the feeding (to 400 acres) and start a hunting season on cranes. Has it occurred to the state wildlife managers not to feed them at all? To fold up the groaning board and let them move along their migratory route as they used to? Do they really need to open a season on sandhill cranes?

A letter-writing campaign spurred by this and other blog posts; opposition from the Tennessee Ornithological Society and from a large number of vocal opponents of hunting cranes are building has apparently taken the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission by surprise. They will hold a special meeting on Thursday, January 20, 2011, to entertain respondents on both sides of the question.

It’s hard to say when you write a letter of protest whether it will have any impact on the state’s final decision. You never know that when you write a letter. But a lot of letters have had a significant impact, and more are needed. I wanted you to know this plan was afoot; I wanted you to know, as most bird watchers do not, that sandhill cranes are a game bird in almost all the states where they breed or migrate. And rather recently so. If shooting a bird that, if it’s lucky, is able to fledge only one colt a year seems like a bad idea, please write these Tennessee officials with your views. If you’re moved to act—even to e-mail these people—I’d be grateful, and so would the legions of Tennessee birders and nature lovers who think there’s something very wrong with this picture, too. I feel strongly that a sandhill crane is worth infinitely more to the planet flying shoulder to shoulder with its family, purring its haunting, sonorous song, than thudding broken and bleeding into a cornfield, and I hope you do, too. The Tennessee Ornithological Society has come out against the proposed hunt, and a letter-writing campaign is under way. The deadline for public comments on the hunt is racing up: January 19, 2011. Please direct letters and e-mails to:

twra.comment@tn.gov (write Sandhill Crane in the subject line)

Michael Chase
Chairman, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission
PO Box 50370
Knoxville, TN 37950
E-mail: mike.chase@tn.gov

Ed Carter, Executive Director
TN Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Rd
Nashville, TN 37220

Governor-Elect Bill Haslam
1701 West End Avenue Suite 300
Nashville, TN 37203
(615) 254 4799

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