Crane hunting debate rages again

Larry Woody • Updated Jul 27, 2013 at 12:41 AM

A proposed hunting season for sandhill cranes is back in the news, with both sides of the debate espousing the same claims as they did when the issue first arose a couple of years ago.

The Tennessee Ornithological Society opposes hunting the birds, based on reasons that are based more on emotion than biological facts.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation support a limited hunt, and produce sound wildlife-management facts to support its stand.

The bird-watchers’ concerns, as I understand them, are (1) sandhill cranes are too “pretty” to be hunted, and (2) they could be mistaken for the more rare whooping crane and mistakenly shot.

Let me address the first contention: there is no more magnificent bird in Tennessee than the Eastern Wild Turkey. And in terms of being attractive, I’d vote the common bob-white quail near the top of the list, along with the mourning dove and ducks of various species.

Yet we have hunting seasons for wild turkeys, quail, doves and ducks.

If being “pretty” is a reason to protect a particular species, why aren’t the bird-watchers equally alarmed about hunting all of those?

During the initial debate, the Ornithological Society claimed that sandhill cranes were rare, and that hunting them would remove too many birds from a fragile population.

That argument quickly unraveled when it was pointed out that sandhills have been hunted in a dozen states for many years with no adverse effect on their population. In fact, the sandhill population has increased in those states in which they are hunted, just as the wild turkey population has increased in Tennessee, despite having two annual hunting seasons with liberal bag limits.

In southeast Tennessee, where most of the migrating sandhills gather in winter, the huge flocks can decimate fields of grain. They are so numerous that farmers are granted special permits to kill the nuisance birds.

Eventually the bird-watchers were forced to concede that shooting a limited number of sandhill cranes would not adversely affect the population. However, they said, hunters might mistake sandhills for the endangered whooping crane and shoot the latter.

Again, that argument doesn’t hold water. Waterfowl hunters are required to identify different species of ducks before shooting. If they can discern one kind of duck from another – often as the ducks dart through rain, sleet and snow -- they can certainly discern one kind of crane from another.

Turkey hunters likewise have to distinguish between male and female turkeys, primarily by a beard or lack thereof. If a hunter is disciplined enough not to shoot a particular turkey until it is positively identified, he can do the same with a crane.

Another claim by the ornithologists: since many of the migrating sandhills are found on and around wildlife sanctuaries such as the Hiwassee Refuge, hunting them would disturb other wildlife, and the boom of guns would spoil the natural ambiance.

They ignore – or aren’t aware of – the fact that for generations waterfowl have been hunted on and around those same refuges. If hunting waterfowl doesn’t disturb other wildlife or spoil the ambiance, why would hunting cranes in the same area?

The refuges where most of the cranes gather -- and where they are observed and photographed by visitors from special viewing areas -- are maintained by the TWRA. The TWRA is largely supported by hunters’ license fees. The Ornithological Society’s contribution is minimal at best.

If not for hunters, who fund the TWRA’s million-dollar non-game program, the crane-watchers probably wouldn’t have any cranes to watch.

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