Over the next few years, hunters in the eastern United States are likely to get a crack at a game bird that hasn’t been hunted east of the Mississippi River in nearly a century.
For the first time since the federal government closed all sandhill crane hunting in 1916, the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway Councils approved a management plan in July 2010 that authorizes individual states to develop hunting seasons for these long-legged, long-necked, red-capped birds—dubbed “rib eye in the sky” for their exceptional table fare.
Since July, both Tennessee and Kentucky have proposed hunting seasons for sandhill cranes, and if current population trends continue, other eastern states won’t be far behind.
Just Look West
While sandhill crane hunting may be a novel concept in the East, Texas and New Mexico have been hunting the birds since 1961. In total, 13 states in the West and Midwest, including nine of the 10 states in the Central Flyway, allow sandhill crane hunting today. Sandhill crane hunting seasons currently exist in Alaska, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming and Minnesota.
Most of the sandhill cranes that are presently hunted in the United States belong to the Mid-Continent Population, which at more than 500,000 birds is the largest sandhill crane population in North America. The Mid-Continent Population winters in Alaska, Siberia and Canada and migrates through the Central Flyway to its wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and Mexico. From 2000 to 2009, it’s estimated that 8,600 hunters harvested about 17,000 sandhills annually from the Mid-Continent Population.
For comparison, the sandhills found in the Eastern U.S. belong to the Eastern Population of greater sandhill cranes.
In January, Mike Krei, director of NRA’s Competitive Shooting Division, hunted sandhill cranes for the first time in Texas’ northern panhandle. Krei was intrigued by the birds after seeing them on a hunt in southeast Oregon some years ago, but he had to look elsewhere to hunt them, as sandhills are off limits to hunters in that portion of the Pacific Flyway.
“I wanted to do a sandhill crane hunt for a long time,” he said. “It was an opportunity that you don’t get very often. There aren’t many states that offer sandhill crane hunting. I had been looking for the past four or five years for a place where I could do it.”
Krei booked his hunt with Panhandle’s Best, a guide service based out of Amarillo, Texas, that counts migratory birds among its specialties. Krei was joined on the hunt by Robert Patton, director of 1st American Reserve, the official rare coin and bullion dealer of the NRA.
The hunt took place in mid January during the birds’ migration, and guide Mark Meissenburg had pre-scouted the area to determine which fields the birds were frequenting. Krei and Patton hunted two different areas and literally saw sandhills by the thousands.
“I was shocked at the number of birds we saw,” Krei said. “You could look from horizon to horizon and see flock after flock of birds. We were told that there were about 200,000 birds in this one particular area in northern Texas. It’s hard to estimate how many birds you could see in a day, but it was virtually thousands of birds a day. We’d have them by the hundreds coming into the decoys.”
Sandhill cranes are hunted much like geese, with decoys set in fields and hunters stationed in blinds. Although sandhill cranes are classified as migratory birds, a federal Duck Stamp is not required to hunt them, and hunters are allowed to use lead shot instead of the steel required for other migratory waterfowl.
“It was a great hunt. Fortunately or unfortunately, we were set up at daybreak, and every morning we could have been done in 45 minutes or so,” said Krei. “Once the birds started coming in, they just didn’t quit. We took it slow. The limit is three per day per person, so it gives you a nice opportunity. We shot our limit each day, and we were never in the field more than two hours.
“It was one of those hunts where I picked the guide kind of out of the blue, and it turned out to be a marvelous experience—better than I had hoped.”
Obstacles in the East
With the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyway Councils’ endorsement of crane hunting in July, Krei and other eastern hunters will likely get a chance to hunt sandhills much closer to home.
The question now is when that opportunity will come to fruition.
While certainly less numerous than their Midwestern counterparts, the sandhill population in the East has grown significantly in the last 30-40 years. As of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s fall 2009 survey, the Eastern Population numbered slightly less than 60,000 birds—up from 30,000 in 1996.
As the population has grown, so too have reports of sandhill crane crop damage. Crop depredation is increasing because of the cranes’ attraction to new shoots of spring agricultural crops, including corn and winter wheat. Cranes uproot the germinating seed of corn plants or other crops and feed on the attached kernel. Later in the year, farmers deal with grazing and trampling damage to winter wheat, as well as damage to standing unharvested corn, when large concentrations of sandhill cranes are present.
One report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed 84 complaints of sandhill crane crop damage from Wisconsin alone in 2007, resulting in $263,000 in damages.
As a result of this damage, between 200 and 300 harvest permits are issued for sandhill cranes each year in the Mississippi Flyway to deal with crop damage. Though not issued as part of a formal hunting season, these depredation permits have provided biologists with evidence that sandhills can be harvested without impacting the overall population.
One state in the Mississippi Flyway—Minnesota—did approve a sandhill crane hunting season this past July. In the process, Minnesota became the first state in the Mississippi Flyway to hold a sandhill crane in almost 100 years this past fall. That hunt was limited to the northwest corner of the state, however, which is used my members of the Mid-Continent Population as a nesting and migration resting spot. Eastern Minnesota also has cranes from the Eastern Population, but as of now that population is still off limits to hunting.
Minnesota’s inaugural crane hunt ran Sept. 4 to Oct. 10, and 1,962 hunters paid $3.50 for a crane permit.
The majority of the Eastern Population breeds across the Great Lakes region (Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario) and winters in Florida and southern Georgia. In late summer and early fall, the cranes leave their breeding grounds and congregate in large flocks before beginning their southward migration through an east-central corridor that includes Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. However, due to mild winters in recent years, the birds have remained further north for the winter months in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and even in southern Ontario on Lake Erie.
The states that are home to the birds’ breeding and wintering areas, as well as their migration route, are the most likely to see hunting seasons in the future—especially as the Eastern Population continues to grow and crop damage intensifies.
However, opposition from anti-hunters and bird watchers is expected to slow the introduction of hunting seasons. It is important to note that sandhill cranes are not threatened or endangered. In fact, they are the most abundant crane species in the world, with a total estimated population of 600,000 birds throughout North America.
Tennessee and Kentucky are the only states thus far to propose hunting seasons for eastern sandhills, although it appears hunters in both states shouldn’t get their shotguns ready just yet.
In January, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission decided to delay a decision on its planned sandhill crane hunt for at least two years in order to study the proposal further. This followed opposition from the state’s bird watchers and the Tennessee Ornithological Society. The 2010 mid-winter count documented more than 40,000 sandhill cranes in southeast Tennessee.
Kentucky initially proposed a hunt that would have allowed for 750 hunters to take four cranes apiece each season, but after public outcry from the birding community, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has reduced the number of hunters to 400, with a season bag limit of two birds per hunter. As it is currently outlined, Kentucky’s sandhill hunt would be a 30-day season in mid-December through mid-January, beginning in 2011-2012—a timeframe designed to protected crane viewing opportunities in late January and February.
That plan could still be tweaked between now and June, when the Kentucky Fish and Game Commission is expected to vote on the proposal. If accepted by the commission, the proposal would them go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for final approval. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is taking public comments on its updated sandhill crane hunting approval now through March 15. Comments can be submitted via e-mail to FW_Suggestions@ky.gov or by mail to:
Attn: Commissioner Jon Gassett
1 Sportsman’s Lane
Frankfort, KY 40601
If approved, Kentucky would become the first state to hold a modern hunting season for the Eastern Population of sandhill cranes. Other states are expected to follow suit. Now it’s just a matter of when and under what type of framework.
“The question should be, ‘Why shouldn’t we hunt them?’” said Mike Butler, executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, in The Tennessean. “It’s historically how we manage and use wildlife. When things are considered good table fare, when they’ve traditionally been hunted and you have a healthy population, we’ve always said we’ll hunt them.”