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An Examination of a Sandhill Crane Season in Tennessee

By Michael Butler, CEO

As we approach an August vote by the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission on the question of a limited eastern sandhill crane season, we thought it would be prudent to review the facts of the species and the debate.  (UPDATE:  The vote was passed unanimously.)

The efforts of state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, along with sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts, have resulted in the remarkable recovery of the eastern sandhill crane. The population is currently estimated to be more than 100,000 individual birds and growing, double that of 1996.

Sandhill crane hunting has occurred for more than 50 years in other states without any negative impacts on the sandhill crane populations, while helping to mitigate agricultural damage. The population is currently resulting in some crop depredation, and that has to be managed as the numbers continue to grow. Depredation permits have proven ineffective.

One of the loudest objections we’ve heard is that whooping cranes will be taken accidentally. There are a number of states where sandhill and whooping cranes migrate and sandhills are hunted; efforts in those states have proven successful in preventing any accidental taking of whooping cranes. In fact, since 1961 there have only been three cases of whooping cranes being accidentally shot by hunters, while approximately 15,000 cranes are harvested annually nationwide.

The Federation believes that the sandhill crane represents another tremendous conservation success story, supported largely by the resources of hunters through license fees and excise taxes. When a species recovers to a point where it needs to be hunted for management purposes, that’s a good thing.  Whitetail deer and wild turkeys are a perfect example.  Both state and federal waterfowl biologists recommend the establishment of a sandhill season in Tennessee, with a limited number of permits offered.

Wildlife watchers and hunters co-exist all over Tennessee, even during hunting season. Around Reelfoot Lake in January, for instance, dozens of photographers are in the area taking pictures of waterfowl during the peak of the duck season. These two “uses” of our wildlife resources are mutually agreeable, as has been demonstrated with so many other species. This reality is also supported by wildlife watchers and hunters; both said in a recent survey that they believe crane viewing and hunting can co-exist.

Over the course of our nearly 70-year history, our basis for decision-making has always been the biology, which underpins the entire North American wildlife conservation model. The biology clearly supports establishing a sandhill crane season in Tennessee, as do the federal and state biologists charged with making these decisions.

Some information regarding the current status on sandhill crane populations and hunting.

  • The eastern population of greater sandhill cranes is healthy and estimated by professional biologists to be more than 100,000 birds.Sandhill crane hunting and viewing festivals co-exist in seven U.S. states.
  • Modern day regulated crane hunting has existed in the U.S. since 1961, and no crane hunting season has negatively impacted a crane population.
  • Both federal and state wildlife biologists believe that the sandhill population is healthy enough to support a hunting season.  The population numbers of cranes used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for the eastern U.S. and TWRA for Tennessee are NOT estimates.  They are actual counts of cranes during their surveys.  For 2012, the USFWS count was 87,796 for the eastern U.S. and TWRA’s 2013 count was 18,701.  These are not estimates, but rather hard numbers.  Population estimates are significantly higher for both the eastern U.S. and Tennessee.
  • The methodologies used to count cranes have been standardized and perfected by wildlife biologists since the 1950’s when biologists started using similar techniques to monitor continental waterfowl populations.
  • The potential impacts on whooping cranes from the hunting of sandhill cranes are overstated.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has historically issued depredation tags to landowners to kill sandhill cranes.  The rules of these permits also require landowners to leave the cranes to rot after they are killed, resulting in wasting the resource.
  • Many landowners have stopped applying for (or never bother to apply for) depredation tags because the process is tedious, difficult and slow.
  • Sandhill cranes have a proven capability to negatively impact agriculture crops, resulting in significant financial crop damage annually.
  • If approved, the TWRA will most likely implement a season by taking a conservative approach to season lengths and bag limits, which we support and which has been proven sustainable in other states.

To read additional facts and statistics about sandhill cranes, CLICK HERE. Opens as a pdf.

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