The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission is again considering joining neighboring Kentucky in having a hunting season for sandhill cranes, the large beautiful migratory birds that fly through the two states on their way north and south each spring and fall. But instead of Tennessee becoming the second state east of the Mississippi River to have an abbreviated hunting season for sandhill cranes, a much stronger case could be made for Kentucky discontinuing its hunting season for the cranes that spend their winters in Florida and their summers in Canada.
It is not as if hunters have been rushing to bag a sandhill crane in Kentucky or hunters are needed to control the population of the cranes in the state. Instead, the major motivation for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources offering a hunting season for sandhill crane is to promote tourism, and the first two sandhill crane hunting seasons in the state have been busts when it comes to attracting hunters from distant states.
In Kentucky’s first hunting season for sandhill cranes in December 2011, wildlife officials hoped to generate income by conducting a lottery for the 400 licenses that would be available for sandhill crane hunters, but only 332 applied to be in the lottery for the 400 hunting permits allocated. The two crane seasons have each established a limit of 400 cranes that could be killed by hunters, but only one eighth of that number was actually killed in each of the two seasons.
Tennessee wildlife officials are taking public comment on initiating a crane hunting season, and the commission will decide whether to allow crane hunting when it meets in August. This is the second time in three years the agency has pondered such a proposal. In 2011, the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission considered a sandhill crane hunt, but deferred action on the proposal.
The debate about crane hunting has proven polarizing in Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation leads organized hunting groups in pushing for a crane season. Birders don’t like the idea, and officials of the Tennessee Ornithological Society say the cranes are too valuable a resource to hunt. When the commission delayed a decision in 2011, 72 percent of the public comments TWRA received opposed a sandhill crane hunt.
While regular readers of this space know the Independent’s editorial board has a long record of supporting hunters, we have never been comfortable with the hunting season for sandhill cranes. Sandhills are beautiful birds, standing as tall as 5 feet with wingspans that can reach 6 feet or more. They have a distinctive red forehead. They can live up to 20 years and remain in stable pairs to raise their young. Those pairs engage in what's known as unison calling, in which they stand together and sing a set of coordinated calls.
The sandhill cranes are not permanent residents of Kentucky. They pass through the state only en route to somewhere else. It is likely the sandhill cranes will attract far more tourists armed with cameras that those armed with rifles. While the cranes do not fly this far east, there are enough of them flying around Barren Lake north of Bowling Green to have tourists flock to the lake just to see the big birds. In fact, it is well established bird-watchers far outnumber, and outspend, bird hunters. That is their true value in Kentucky. Hunting seasons for the sandhill cranes are so controversial they probably cause more harm than good when it comes to tarnishing the state’s reputation.
This Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources initially approved the sandhill crane hunting season on a three-year trail basis. The state’s third season will be in December. It should be the final one.