Sandhill crane hunting debate is back for round two

Authored By richard

If you believe a recent public opinion survey, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists face an uphill battle in implementing a hunting season for sandhill cranes in Southeast Tennessee.

Sandhill cranes are large, gangly, heron-like birds. Their haunting calls are frequently overhead as they migrate through the area in the fall and back north in late winter. Thousands of the birds routinely congregate on TWRA’s Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County. Hundreds or thousands of birdwatchers are attracted there to view the sandhills throughout the winter, especially during the special Sandhill Crane Festival held every January.

However, over the years, there have been some complaints from area farmers about the birds damaging crops, and hunting enthusiasts argue that sandhill crane populations have grown well beyond the point to support a regulated hunting season. Hunters say the birds are extremely tasty, referring to them as “rib-eyes in the sky.” At least 13 other states already offer sandhill crane hunting seasons.

About two years ago, the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission considered a sandhill crane hunting season. The proposal brought fierce debate, with hunting proponents on one side and the avid birdwatching community on the other side. The TFWC wimped out on a vote and “deferred” the proposal for more study. 

That study period is over, and TWRA staff biologists have returned to the commission with the hunting season proposal again. Because sandhills are migratory birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ultimate control over hunting seasons. Then, individual states can choose to opt in or not. In Tennessee, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended a potential 60-day sandhill crane season, with 775 permits available (three birds per permit). The sandhill crane zone would be restricted to the southeastern portion of the state (south of I-40, east of Highway 56), where the majority of the birds migrate.

TWRA is soliciting public comment, and the birdwatching community is gathering en masse, flooding Web pages and email inboxes with information (and in some cases, disinformation). Meanwhile, as before, the pro-hunting community is surprisingly silent.

Though not actively lobbying, hunting proponents quickly offer excellent arguments when asked. Many rightfully point out that the dollars generated by hunting licenses are largely responsible for the protection and enhancement of nearly all wildlife populations, including sandhill cranes.

“Why shouldn’t we hunt them? 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,” Mike Butler, executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, said.

Indeed, about the same time Tennessee wildlife regulators wimped out on a sandhill season, Kentucky wildlife regulators had the guts to move ahead, passing a sandhill hunting season in spite of the protests. Concerns about a sandhill slaughter by some in the anti-sandhill hunting community ended up being unnecessary to our north. Kentucky hunters showed lackluster interest. During the first season, hunters took only 50 sandhill cranes. Last season, they took only 92.

Those protesting the Tennessee season now are saying that hunters will be allowed to kill 2,325 sandhill cranes. Though that is true on paper, as Kentucky has shown, the real-life result is likely to be only a miniscule fraction of that number.

However, one overwhelming point the anti-sandhill hunting crowd does have in its favor is the scientific public opinion survey that was commissioned and paid for by TWRA. That survey shows that the overwhelming majority of the general populace is opposed to hunting sandhill cranes. And even among avid hunters, there is less than a majority in support of a sandhill season.

According to the scientific survey, 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 survey respondents who said they were avid hunters, only 42 percent supported a sandhill hunt and 35 percent opposed.

Two years ago (before any scientific surveys), I professed my own opinion publicly, much to the dismay of my hunting friends.

I am a hunter and a serious supporter of the rights of hunters. But in this case, I’ve heard virtually no one in my personal hunting network actively lobbying to go sandhill crane hunting. My perception is that most are like me, a few hundred hunters who simply want “the right” to hunt sandhills whether they will actually do it or not.

On the other hand, I see thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of nonhunters who have come to love the cranes, and as a result, they have a far greater appreciation for wildlife in general. And if we all work together rather than squaring off in our opposite corners, we can accomplish great things in the future.

Therefore, in this case, as a hunter and a hardcore supporter of the rights of hunters, I am willing to surrender the sandhill crane battle in hopes the two sides can ultimately join hands and win the war.

Nothing has happened to change my opinion, except now there is a scientific survey that proves many other hunters share my opinion.

Do you want to share your opinion?

If so, first please share it with TWRA by sending them an email. Use the subject line “Sandhill Crane.” The formal comment period will be open until Aug. 10. Comments can also be mailed to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, ATTN: Sandhill Crane Hunt, P.O. Box 40747, Nashville, TN 37204.

Then, please share your opinion below. I dare you.

Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.