The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is considering a proposal to allow hunting of sandhill cranes and is accepting public comments through January.
This is a good sign in many ways. Nearly extirpated during our country's industrial expansion, these birds have rebounded to healthy population sizes, thanks mainly to the arrest of wetlands destruction. Another crane, the whooping crane, remains on the brink of extinction, but decades of extraordinary effort have restored an eastern migratory population that produced its first wild-born birds in the past couple of years. These critically endangered birds flock with sandhills during migration and on wintering grounds, and this is the prime reason for concern about this proposed hunt.
TWRA has taken steps to reduce the possibility of a whooping crane being accidentally shot, but they should do more. Hunting will not be allowed on Hiwassee Refuge, where the majority of both species congregate during Tennessee stop-overs, and permits will include identification guides to help hunters learn the differences among sandhills, whooping cranes and snow geese. Crane season coincides with the late duck season, primarily the month of December, when whooping cranes will have mostly moved on to their ultimate winter range in Florida.
This is all good, but the fact of the matter is that whooping cranes are closely monitored, and TWRA could suspend hunts while whoopers are present. In materials describing this proposed hunt, TWRA says, "This population of whooping cranes is an experimental flock. TWRA does not propose to stop hunting sandhill cranes if/when whooping cranes migrate through." Dismissing the whooping crane flock as "experimental" is a profound insult to the hundreds of people who have dedicated themselves to rearing and training the flock, a decades-long effort that culminated in teaching the cranes their route by guiding them behind an ultralight plane.
Whooping cranes from the larger Central Flyway population have been shot accidentally, but by goose hunters, not sandhill crane hunters. A few years ago in West Tennessee, the first wild swan seen in Tennessee since Audubon's time was shot by a goose hunter. It takes minimal competence to distinguish a goose from a crane, but goose hunters have not demonstrated even that baseline skill. Perhaps TWRA should aim its educational efforts more toward that larger population of hunters.
Tennessee farmers have been granted depredation permits for sandhill cranes in recent years, but damage to agricultural crops is a minimal problem, if not entirely exaggerated, since cranes arrive after harvests and leave before planting time. Perhaps there are winter crops I am unaware of. Even so, cranes eat insects and mice and may very well earn their share of grains. Damage to crops is a greater problem in the northern states where cranes are present during growing season. Hunting here can benefit northern agricultural interests, but it provides little value to Tennessee farmers.
Sandhill crane meat is reportedly prized for taste and color, and populations can support the proposed take of up to 2199 birds per year. In principle I have no objection to allowing this hunt, but I believe TWRA should do all it can to prevent the accidental death of an endangered whooping crane.