Monday, November 15, 2010

Sandhill Crane Hunting in Tennessee? Multiple Factors Say, NO

"The cranes were spectacular--thousands and thousands of them, on the shore, on distant sandbars, in flight behind me and in front of me, soaring in from all directions, filling the air with their wonderful calls." 
Sketchbook journal--Vickie Henderson, Feb 5, 2000, Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, Tennessee
This was my initial description of the spectacle of staging sandhill cranes at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge in TN, an awe-inspiring experience that launched me into a ten-year journey that has been dedicated to experiencing wildlife in wild places and sharing the joy of that experience through art.

It was at this refuge, during this sandhill crane migration and the Cherokee Heritage and Sandhill Crane Viewing Days, a joint venture between members of the TN Ornithological Society (TOS) and the TN Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), that I experienced my first wild sightings of three magnificent birds, the Greater Sandhill Crane, Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle, all in one day.  At this event I also learned about TWRA's Golden Eagle hacking project, and the upcoming ultralight-led migration project that has, since that time, successfully re-introduced migrating Whooping Cranes to the east.

Later that year, in June of 2000, I drove from Tennessee to Wyoming to join TWRA's Golden Eagle hacking project's climbing crew in the collection of golden eaglets to be transported back to Tennessee.  (See "hacking" explanation at end of post.)

Preparation for my cross-country journey included a thirty-minute orientation meeting with TWRA's Bruce Anderson, head of the project, at his regional office in Crossville, TN.  This was the extent of what we knew about each other before I joined the TWRA team in Gillette, WY as a volunteer, my first ever endeavor of this kind.  

Once there, in the course of four packed days of off-road driving, the collection of thirteen eaglets from nests using ropes and ascenders (leaving one eaglet in the nest for parents to raise), and the feeding of eaglets in the evenings, I developed an enormous regard and respect for the wildlife officers involved in this project.  In that compact amount of time, I was exposed to a deep reverence for wildlife, a dedicated work ethic, a sound devotion to conservation, militant "tree hugger" attitudes directed toward the project team, and, yes, to hunting.  The brief hunting encounter involved the sacrifice of a rabbit to add fresh meat to the young eaglets' diet, otherwise consisting of frozen mice transported from TN.  

All of the members of this wildlife team, with the exception of one other volunteer, were employees of TWRA.  All, with the exception of yours truly, were hunters.  On a very personal level, this experience forever opened my mind and heightened my regard for the best of those individuals we term "hunters".  Those of us who watch wildlife and choose not to hunt have something infinitely valuable in common with these hunters--we all revere wildlife and want to save the wild places they inhabit.

Of all the reasons I don't want to see a sandhill crane hunt in Tennessee, this one ranks high among them. Sandhill cranes have done more to bring hunters and wildlife watchers together in TN than all other species combined, and the festival that celebrated their presence has been responsible for inspiring and educating thousands of people about wildlife projects in Tennessee.  The spectacle and delight of staging sandhill cranes formed the center-piece that provided opportunity to educate, adding numbers to our environmental forces, bringing revenue into our state, and inspiring individuals like me to get involved.
And what Tennessee is doing to help wildlife and the environment is exciting and something to be celebrated.  Since 2003, more than 350,000 acres have been protected across Tennessee, and TWRA is the steward of all these lands and its wildlife inhabitants.

Regarding these land transactions, TN's Environment and Conservation Commissioner, Jim Fyke, in his message in the current issue of the TN Conservationist, credits Governor Phil Bredesen for his invaluable leadership in these conservation efforts and says the following:  "Governor Bredesen knew preserving our state's most special habitats and natural features today was a long-term investment in the quality of life for all Tennesseans.  He realized economic vitality and our natural resources are directly linked, especially in Tennessee.  Thoughtful conservation investment in these resources helps promote heritage tourism and sustainable outdoor recreation activities with meaningful future returns."

If we need to assign economic value to the Greater Sandhill Crane's sheltered presence in Tennessee in order to deter the current effort to hunt them, there it is.  But, before I continue with the economic factors, lets look at cranes themselves, their Whooping crane cousins, and some complex factors that indicate that hunting cranes would be an unwise decision--a decision, by the way, that is not made by TWRA, but by a commission of Tennessee citizens who are relying on our voices to help them determine the outcome of this issue.          

Sandhill Crane Ecology
The eastern population of Greater Sandhill Cranes has come back from the brink of extinction from only 25 breeding pairs remaining in Wisconsin in the 1930's to more than 50,000 now migrating through the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways.  I am proud that Tennessee has been a part of this success story through the conservation of wetlands and refuge crop plantings that helped sustain these struggling cranes, as well as, supported wintering waterfowl and other migrating species.

It is here that I want to mention that the numbers often quoted for sandhill crane populations, "500-600,000 sandhill cranes" are referencing sandhill crane populations in the central flyway, the majority of which are the Lesser Sandhill Crane, a separate and distinct sub-species of sandhill crane.  The only sandhill cranes present in the state of Tennessee are members of the eastern population of Greater Sandhill Cranes.   

Sandhill cranes are family-oriented birds, mating for life, remaining in family groups throughout the breeding season and during migration.  Though lost mates are eventually replaced, the surviving partner in the pair is known to grieve the loss.  Juveniles separated from parents during migration are less likely to survive, having lost both protection and assistance in finding food.  Though sandhill families migrate in flocks, they do not mingle or adopt lost juveniles, but rather, establish small territories within a flock's feeding ground and defend their family's territory against intrusion.  

A sandhill crane's first breeding season begins at two to seven years of age, averaging 4.3 years of age, with the laying of two eggs, and more often with only one colt surviving.  Though sandhill cranes are typically long-lived, this makes for a slow and low reproductive replacement rate.  

Historically our country has relied heavily on population numbers to determine the health of a species without sufficient consideration of species' ecology and the impact of human use and consumption of vital habitat.  Sandhill cranes rely on wetlands for their survival. They must roost in shallow water as a protection from predators.          

The United States Environmental Protection Agency presents these facts about the status and trends of US wetlands:   The lower 48 states contained an estimated 105.5 million acres of wetlands in 1997, an area about the size of California.  Between 1986 and 1997, an estimated 58,500 acres of wetlands were lost each year in the conterminous United States.  [This period followed the implementation of wetland protection measures. Until another study is released, the implication is that this trend continues.]  Loss of wetlands today involve more than physical loss due to drainage and development, but other factors that are more difficult to measure.  Other threats include chemical contamination, excess nutrients, and sediment from air and water.  Global climate change could affect wetlands through increased air temperature; shifts in precipitation; increased frequency of storms, droughts, and floods; increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration; and sea level rise.  All of these impacts could affect species composition and wetland functions.

We do not know how these factors will affect this population of Greater Sandhill Cranes.

Whooping Cranes 
In the fall of 2001, Operation Migration conducted the first-ever ultralight-led migration with endangered Whooping cranes, leading them from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.  In the spring these juveniles returned to their fledging grounds unassisted by humans, representing the first Whooping cranes to fly in the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways in over a century.  As a result of this project, involving the cooperation of two national governments, and many state and private organizations, we now have 96 Whooping cranes migrating in the east, a population that has been introduced to help safeguard the remaining wild Whooping crane population that migrates from breeding grounds in Canada to wintering grounds on the coast of Texas.  This original wild population suffered a loss of 10% in their 2009 wintering season, attributable to insufficient food supply and starvation caused by restricted fresh water inflows from the Guadalupe River.  A law suit against Texas water regulators has been filed by U.S. environmentalists.  

When Whooping Cranes were re-introduced in the east, they were designated as a "nonessential experimental population" by the USFWS, essentially meaning that if a Whooping Crane is accidentally injured or killed during a lawful act, the person committing the act cannot be prosecuted. This designation was necessary to reach agreement with all the states affected by the presence of re-introduced, migrating Whooping cranes.  In addition, the flyway states are partners in this endeavor and these partnerships made, and still make, the Whooping crane reintroduction possible.  

Having said that, Tennessee represents the midway point of the eastern Whooping Crane's migration from Wisconsin to Florida, a journey through a migration corridor that acts as a funnel for migrating cranes.  The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is a major staging area for this population of whoopers, as well as, sandhill cranes.  These re-introduced Whooping Cranes represent an investment of millions of dollars and ten years of concerted effort on the part of public and private organizations and many thousands of supporters in an effort to help safeguard an endangered species against extinction.    

Though I am confident that the USFWS and TWRA would do everything possible to educate potential hunters should this proposal go forward, this education would not eliminate the risk of bad aim or a strayed shot, nor would it eliminate the possibility of human error in identification.  The Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes of the Hiwassee refuge and surrounding area frequently mingle; they feed together and they come and go together.  In poor light, in the sun's glare, while looking skyward at distant birds in flight, the most experienced of us cannot easily distinguish them in an instant.  
Greater sandhill cranes and four Whooping cranes mingle while feeding at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge on an overcast day.  The white and cinnamon Whooping crane in the upper left is a juvenile.
This brings me back to the economic issues.
The proposal to hunt sandhill cranes in Tennessee has reached this level, the level of final commission decision, because a small group of organized hunters knew the approval system well enough to actively pursue it.  The hunt, if approved, will serve a small group of special interests, not the majority of the citizens in Tennessee, and take valuable time and money from other wildlife management projects.  Between 2008 and 2010 only nine sandhill depredation permits were requested in TN and granted by the USFWS, indicating that hunting as a management tool is currently a weak argument for this hunt.  Public relations and funding dollars, on the other hand, are enormous arguments for opposing the hunt.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing TWRA's Executive Director, Ed Carter, speak at a Tennessee for Wilderness Planning meeting in LaFollette, TN.  In that talk, he addressed the issue of funding for the agency, which is currently based on the sales of licenses and taxes on hunting paraphernalia.  Currently, a hunting license may be purchased by a hunter and that revenue will be matched by the federal government to support the agency.  By contrast, if a non-hunter purchases a license and checks the non-hunter box on the application, no matching funds are received by the state.  There is something very wrong with this picture. Our federal and state laws and regulations are not keeping pace with the rapid increase in wildlife-watching participation.

According to a USFWS survey, from 1996 to 2006, wildlife watching by TN residents increased by 81%, while hunting declined by 25%; from 2001-2005 spending by resident hunters was down 10%, while spending by wildlife watchers was up 112%.  And among the 2.8 million residents and non-residents who participated in wildlife related activities in Tennessee in 2006, 84% were wildlife watching and only 12% were hunting.  (See the resource links below to find the same information for your state.)

The trend is clear, but wildlife-watching dollars are not being funneled to the agency responsible for managing the places wildlife watchers enjoy.  And the problem is not just here in Tennessee, but it is true in every state in the USA.  We, as wildlife watchers and hunters, need to support our state wildlife management organizations by lobbying to change the laws that govern their funding.  Besides believing that it is in my state's best interest to deny the approval of a sandhill crane hunt, I also believe it is in the best interest of every state in the flyway.  Tennessee has an opportunity to set a precedent here.  And as one of its concerned citizens, I would like to see that precedent set in favor of harmony, rather than hunting, and instead, focus on pro-active planning and thoughtful harnessing of the growing numbers of wildlife watchers in our state.  We need all of their energy to help change antiquated laws so that our wildlife management programs can go forward with sufficient funding.

And to all wildlife watchers who enjoy our state, the time is now to send your opinion on the proposed sandhill crane hunt in TN to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission.  Every letter makes a difference.

Photo credits:  Photo of the author holding a golden eaglet in Wyoming taken by Bruce Anderson.

Hacking:  Hacking is a means of re-establishing an extirpated population of raptors and involves placing a juvenile raptor in an enclosure and feeding it until it is ready to fledge or take its first flight.  Young raptors are known to return to the place where they initially fledge to establish their own nesting territory.  This is the method that has been used throughout the USA to re-establish bald eagle and peregrin falcon populations.
Tree Hugger:  a derogatory slang expression for an environmentalist or someone who is trying to save wildlife


  1. This isn't a post, Vickie, it's a book. And a magnificent one at that. Your research and thorough substantiation of your excellent points really shines. Thank you. I'm going to share this as much as I can, and I'll be back to borrow from it, too.
    January 15 is the deadline for public comment. Come one, readers. Write. Nobody needs to kill sandhill cranes, nobody needs to eat them, but everyone should experience them.

  2. Bravo, Vickie.
    After reading this post, I am ever more hopeful that the cranes will have a chance. Your voice, Julie Zickefoos's voice, every one's voice against this killing is the voice of reason, and a voice of the future. You are a pioneer on a new earth, where protection and conservation is still a relatively new idea in human history.

    For you other readers:
    Governor Phil Bresesen is the outgoing governor. Let's all write to him too, and maybe his last act in office will be to give the sandill cranes a stay of execution.

    Governor Phil Bredesen
    State Capitol
    Nashville, TN 37243-0001
    phone: 615-741-2001
    call: 615-532-9711

  3. Well written Vickie. I fully agree with you. Hunting Sandhills is not a necessity.

  4. Beautifully expressed. I hope your followers take to heart the desparate need for individual letters and emails. Please contact your Commissioner now. Well done, Vickie.

    Dick Preston
    Tennessee Ornithological Society

  5. Wow! What a great post - comprehensive, informative, historical, thoughtful, and that only begin it. Thanks!!

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you Vickie for one of the best pieces I have ever seen written on wildlife conservation. It is obvious that your experience with the TWRA and your experience with the Sandhill Crane make you the perfect person to express the concerns of everyone involved with the proposed Sandhill Crane hunt.

    Why is it that the biology of the species involved is so often left out of the picture? These birds obviously don't need to be hunted.

  7. Love your photos! I live in Fort Myers, FL and we have egrets, sandcranes, herons, roseate spoonbills, woodstorks, etc. and on and on in and around our backyard and neighborhood. I love to paint these glorious birds!

  8. Vickie what an exceptional writing and even more an exceptional read. This is just full of the words that any of us that are care for and are interested in nature conservation would desire to voice and you have done it in your pure and heartfelt, very well discriptive and vivid and clear voice. The images are great, but the message is grande. Oh and I would have gone with you to collect those Eagelettes in a heartbeat. Bravo Vickie and I hope that your words are far reaching~ Mary

  9. we have a similar oen in Europe. They also comes in thousands. But so noisy. :)

    NF Birds BPW

  10. Excellent piece and fantastic photos. Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge.


  11. Vickie:
    First let me say your art work is truly masterpieces keep up the great work. Secondly I want to thank you for rolling up your sleeves and working to achieve the same goal we "hunters" stive for. We must all grasp the view that we must work in accord as one body to be stewards for creation. I know this doesn't sound like the portrayed picture stereo-type hunter that Joe public has in their mind but it has and will work. I have lived all my 50 years 1 mile from the Hiwassee Refuge. From the time I was allowed outdoors I have been fascinated and loved all forms of life both hunted and non-hunted. I have and still spend countless hours afield both near and abroad. I can understand the concern that if hunting is allowed that we won't see cranes and whooping cranes will be mistaken taken out. Lets look at some other wildlife that has been introduced to a point that hunting was allowed.1)Canadian Geese in 1981 TWRA introduced 500 geese to the refuge and a few short years hunting was introduced and today there is still very healthy population. I never witnessed a wild Turkey in our area until the TWRA was able to re-establish them in 1985.Again we protected them and provided them habitat to flourish to levels that hunting again was reinstated. It is thrilling to set in the deer stand and listen and watch these birds fly over head and walk under your deer stand then see the thousands (I do mean thousands of cranes overhead). Then on a couple weekends in late September and early November suddenly you hear the hum of an ultra-light coming and set back and smile as the man dressed as a whooping crane flies directly overhead with the whooping Cranes it is inspiring. I don’t regret one penny I spend on wildlife and its restoration. I want to see everyone spend time outdoors and get to enjoy some of the magnificent sites that our creator has given us to manage. Back to my view I always have enjoyed seeing the vast numbers of several different species of waterfowl that migrated through the area each year, but now that doesn't happen in the magnitude due the competition for food has increased with the cranes. I have plowed and sown the very fields pictured in your post but if you will notice only a few ducks are present. The ducks nor geese can compete with the cranes in feeding. A crane can stand in the corn and feed while the corn is still standing then compound that with the massive numbers this has had a negative impact several ways. Other waterfowl must relocate elsewhere and then the TWRA all of sudden gets tagged as feeding the cranes only to turn around and kill them. This is not going to be the case, have faith in something that can easily be seen. The proposed hunting is not going to destroy the crane nor remove them from others getting to enjoy viewing them. I have participated in "Crane Day" in the area and I appreciate the injection of financial support and it will continue to be successful if the "body" I spoke of earlier will work together. Just imagine driving back out to Gillette WY. and getting greeted by a group accusing you of stealing their eaglets, knowing all the time that the action you were partaking in would work. We are standing at that point here. I personally do not view myself as having a "right to hunt but I view it every time as privilege that God has given me a great responsibility to be a good steward over His Creation. Every one is entitled to their own opinion and I for one certainly do not want confrontation (life is too short)but if the hunts take place I will say the cranes will flourish just as all other species we hunt. P.S. Come over in late February or early March and I will personally spend a day taking you around to see some of the most intense crane gatherings and mating rituals among the Cranes you will ever see.

  12. If everyone sends Sandhill Crane stories and protests to all the newspapers in Kentucky, we will have made progress this year to stop the hunting of Cranes. Kentucky is also hosting $30.00 Crane festivals in their State parks at this time.
    Speak out now!

    Dick Rice
    Gainesville, Florida


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Ocean Trail at Palos Verdes Nature Preserve, California--2015

Ocean Trail at Palos Verdes Nature Preserve, California--2015

Bird-banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park--2014

Bird-banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park--2014
Photo courtesy of Jody Stone

Bird-banding at Seven Islands

Bird-banding at Seven Islands
Photo courtesy of Karen Wilkenson

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill!--2014

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill!--2014
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky Expeditions

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane banners and son, John--2014

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane banners and son, John--2014

The Incredible Muir Woods near Stinson Beach, CA--2014

The Incredible Muir Woods near Stinson Beach, CA--2014
Photo courtesy of Wendy Pitts Reeves

Me and Denali--2012

Me and Denali--2012
Photo courtesy of Bob King

For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham