Last week Tennessee's Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC) approved the state's first modern day sandhill crane hunt. It will run from Nov. 28 through Jan. 1. A drawing for 400 permits will be held Oct. 19.
Sandhill cranes are a large (4 foot tall, 6 to 7 foot wingspan, 7 to 10 pounds), charismatic species that birders and wildlife watchers enjoy. Western crane populations are healthy, and many western states have a long history of hunting sandhill cranes.
In the fall many of the 87,000 eastern cranes pass through Tennessee on their southbound flights to Georgia and Florida. As many as 12,000 cranes sometimes winter in Tennessee. Richard Simms, a Tennessee-based outdoor writer, says, "Hunters have been pleased to see crane numbers increase rapidly over the last 12 years."
Birders and wildlife watchers have been equally delighted with the crane population increase. For 22 years the Tennessee Ornithological Society and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have partnered on an annual Sandhill Crane Festival held at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.
A sandhill crane hunt was first proposed two years ago, when the FWC deferred a decision until this year. Birders and wildlife watchers opposed the hunt for several reasons.
Even Simms, a lifelong hunter, finds himself torn. "Hunting cranes is bad public relations for wildlife management," he told me. "Maybe we should just give this one to the birders."
In a recent opinion piece (www.Nooga.com, July 5, 2013) Simms explained further. A scientific public opinion survey commissioned by and paid for by the TRWA revealed an overwhelming opposition to hunting sandhill cranes.
According to the survey, Simms wrote, "84 percent of all Tennesseans approve of hunting in general. However, a mere 19 percent support hunting sandhill cranes, while 62 percent are opposed. And even among the survey respondents who said they were avid hunters, only 42 percent supported a sandhill hunt and 35 percent opposed it."
TOS spokesperson Vickie Henderson argues that it's hypocritical to celebrate sandhill cranes with a festival and then shoot them a few weeks later.
Henderson also worries that an endangered whooping crane might be shot accidentally. "There are only 104 whooping cranes in the eastern population, and we expect at least a few will be present during the hunt," she said. "Losing even one whooping crane would be tragic."
To minimize the risk of accidentally killing any whooping cranes, the TWRA has taken several precautions. Though the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (the federal agency responsible for migratory birds) proposed a 60-day season and 775 permits, TWRA regulations call for a more conservative 35-day season and only 400 permits.
Furthermore, legal shooting hours are limited from sunrise to 3 p.m. so hunters avoid low light levels when misidentification would be most likely. And every hunter who gets a crane permit must pass an online identification test.
The Tennessee sandhill crane hunt illustrates the difficulties of wildlife management. From a distance, wildlife biology seems all about the animals. But it's complicated.
The best definition of wildlife management is, "the art and science of manipulating wildlife populations, habitats, and people to achieved specific goals." It's the "people" part that makes it difficult.
Hunters pay for wildlife management through their licenses, permits, and excise taxes. Most state wildlife agencies use no general funds. So it's not unreasonable that hunters expect state wildlife agencies to give more attention to their interests than to concerns of "watchers."
Birders and other watchers, on the other hand, develop an emotional attachment to charismatic species. I know the feeling. One evening back in March 1983, I watched in awe as hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes descended upon Nebraska's Platte River to roost. It's a scene I'll never forget.
But simply loving a species doesn't get an individual or an organization a seat at the conservation table. That seat must be bought and paid for, the way hunters have been doing it for decades.
Birders and watchers, if you want to be heard, get in the game. Hold your nose, and buy a hunting license you'll never use. But wear it proudly when you speak at state wildlife agency meetings. That license is the ticket that will get you heard.
Contact Shalaway via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.