Sandhill cranes are large, red-capped migratory birds that haven't been hunted in Kentucky for almost a century. But as Alan Lytle reports, that could change in just a few months if a proposal to establish a sandhill crane hunting season is approved by a legislative subcommittee.
According to The U-S Department of Fish and Wildlife, the continental population of sandhill cranes is about 600,000, and while they are already hunted in 13 western states, and parts of Canada & Mexico, Kentucky would be the first state east of the Mississippi River to follow suit. That prospect has sparked controversy, especially among conservation groups. Ben Yandell is with the Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes.
"Our objection to this is that a sandhill crane is a very slow reproducing bird. Their so-called recruitment rate, the rate at which new sandhills are born and grow to an age where they can lay eggs and raise young is very very slow. They are very long-lived birds and it's a very slow reproduction rate for them."
And because of that, Yandell says the species would have a hard time bouncing back from overhunting. But John Brunjes, a biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the agency is absolutely certain a 30 day hunt, in which the total harvest is capped at 400 birds, would have zero impact on the overall population.
"The harvest that we've proposed in Kentucky is less than one percent of the population. We've looked at it over and over, the Mississippi Flyaway Council, the Atlantic Flyaway Councils looked at it, the U-S Fish and Wildlife Service has recently reviewed the plan, and everybody has found that the harvest in Kentucky would not even stop population growth let alone cause the extinction or decline of the species."
Yandell, and others remain unconvinced. They say the agency has inflated the amount of interest Kentucky sportsmen and women have expressed in hunting the birds.
"They've actually spent a lot of time trying to generate demand from hunters. The typical comments from hunters I've seen on the KDFWR Facebook page are things like; well, I personally don't have a desire to hunt a sandhill crane, but I certainly don't like anybody trying to restrict hunting rights in Kentucky. That's not what's going on but that's what the department has tried to use to fire up interest."
Yandell is quick to point out that the Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes is not an anti-hunting group, even though he claims they've been portrayed as such. Members do say they don't see the need for Kentucky to sanction a sandhill crane hunt. State Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Mark Marracini says the public has been given ample opportunity to comment on the issue.
"I mean we received a lot of letters in favor of having a season, and we've received a lot opposed to having it. As a matter of fact, I think the amount of letters in favor of having it were quite a bit more."
But Yandell believes Fish and Wildlife board members have already made up their minds.
"No one else gets a vote in this process. They're happy to listen to you talk, in fact you can talk til you're blue in the face, but no one else has a vote."
And while Fish and Wildlife is in the process of responding to those comments, the Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes has sent a letter to Governor Beshear asking him to intercede in the matter. If the Regulations Review Subcommittee approves the application, the first 30 day sandhill crane hunt could begin on December 17th.