Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hunt Eastern Sandhill Cranes? Why Not Hunt Eastern Bluebirds?

Sound absurd?  Outrageous?  Amazingly enough, it is possible.  
Anyone can request a proposal to hunt any species for any reason in the United States of America, and that proposal would follow the same course of action that sandhill crane hunt proposals have followed in the east.    

To help in understanding the above statement, let's look briefly at the history of this little blue bird that our Nation loves so much.    

A thrush species that prefers open short cropped lawns and fields adjacent to woodlands, the bluebird is a secondary cavity nester that must rely on nesting holes made by other species. Farming practices changed, development increased, and old timber was harvested. Not only did the availability of nesting cavities sharply decline, but the proliferation of the European house sparrow following its introduction in 1851, greatly increased competition for the cavities that remained.  Between the 1920's and 1970's bluebird populations plummeted, a loss that is estimated by some historians to have reached as high as 90%.

It was at this point in history (1934) that this charming, royal blue thrush inspired what is commonly referred to as the "Bluebird Trail" movement, a grass roots effort that spread across the country urging the construction of nest boxes that bluebirds could substitute for natural cavities.  And the effort was successful.  Thousands of bluebird boxes erected across the nation helped offset this decline.  In Tennessee, this effort has resulted in abundance in some areas.  In the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Tennessee (edited by Charles P. Nicholson, 1997), the occurrence of the Eastern bluebird in the study's records ranked the eighth highest of any species.
Like the Eastern population of greater sandhill cranes, the history of the eastern bluebird offers an inspiring conservation story.  Neither species has ever been declared endangered.  Fortuitous circumstances came together to offer both the bluebird and the eastern sandhill crane protection and recovery.  Like the sandhill crane, the bluebird also receives protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Now let's suppose an enthusiastic hunting group decides they want to hunt bluebirds and they petition a state wildlife management organization to develop a proposal and submit it to the flyway council(s). Would you be outraged?  What equal opportunity would you find to oppose this proposal?  What mechanism do we have that would allow conservationists and biologists, experts in the species ecology of bluebirds, to give input into this decision?

The answer is none of substance.  There is an assumption that this opportunity exists, but in actual practice there is no democratic process included in the approval of hunting proposals, and no requirement that opposing views be considered.  
In the case of the eastern sandhill crane hunt proposals, the flyway councils (Mississippi and Atlantic), made up of state wildlife management personnel, deferred to the states for fair input from those opposed to hunting sandhill cranes.  In their inclusion of the hunting objective in the eastern population management plan, council members ignored the lack of population modeling for the eastern population, the problems found in survey methods, and the fact that the endangered Ohio breeding population would be affected.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) oversees hunting decisions regarding migratory birds, but keep in mind, the oversight given is one of interpreting and upholding laws, and the use of population ecology (numbers only) to determine how a species will be impacted. There is no examination of complex ecological factors in USFWS oversight.

In the case of Tennessee, opposing input was considered and, in January of 2011, the decision to hunt sandhill cranes was delayed for two years.  In the case of Kentucky, on June 3rd, 2011, the Kentucky Wildlife Resources Commission approved a hunt season on sandhill cranes to be held in December of 2011.  There was no "management need" sited in the Kentucky hunting proposal, only a desire for a new hunting opportunity for local hunters.  In this decision, input from the local scientific community and hunting opponents was largely excluded.  So also, recommendations from national sandhill crane experts.
Both of these hunt proposals targeted the same migratory population of sandhill cranes, a population that has been protected from hunting for nearly a century and has only recovered to its current size in the last two decades.  Evidence from research conducted by the International Crane Foundation indicates that hunting this population at the current time could harm important breeding populations, and that population increase estimates are overinflated due to flaws in count methodology.  All of this information is being ignored in a decision-making process that is almost exclusively governed by wildlife management law enforcement personnel and entrenched in an historic pro-hunt ethic, even though the majority of citizens who enjoy wildlife in  the United States fall outside this activity category.  Additionally, many hunters have voiced their opposition to hunting this population of sandhill cranes; their voice is also not represented.    

How frightening is it to consider that the same thing could happen to the eastern bluebird? That it could happen to any of your favorite song birds or another wildlife species that you particularly enjoy. Think it is impossible?  As long as we have the current decision-making system in place, hunting any species is possible, and the decision about whether to hunt or not will be governed by numbers ecology, and will not require a deeper look into other ecological factors, nor invite representation from leading scientific authorities in the community.  This is what we are watching happen to sandhill cranes in the east.
Photo credit:  Charlie Corbeil, Charlie Corbeil Photography

The system we have in place is founded on the hunting ethic that existed over a century ago.  Its original premise is sound; we need law enforcement to manage the laws that protect wildlife and regulate hunting.  However, when that same system brings a pro-hunting bias to the decision-making table and excludes opposing views, we have a problem, especially when the best available science says that hunting is not in the best interest of the species population.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 recognized wildlife and plants as having "aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people."  To that end, as citizens of this country, we have a mission and a responsibility to conserve wildlife and plant species for future generations.

Serving consumptive special interest groups in the face of information that casts doubts on the welfare of a species population definitely does not fit into this National ethic. Neither does the exclusion of scientific information that would further protect a recovering species.  Now exclude the views of a majority segment of the public---non-consumptive wildlife watchers and hunters who are opposed to the hunting of sandhill cranes---and the efficacy of this decision-making process comes even more glaringly into question.   After all, isn't this country founded on democracy?

What can we do?

First, if you have not already done so, help crane advocates stop Kentucky's hunt proposal from going forward by writing and expressing your opposition to Kentucky's Governor.  Also visit the Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes' action page to learn more about action needed in Kentucky.

Second, sign the "No Hunting for Sandhill Cranes in East" petition.  This petition addresses the Management Plan for the Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes and targets the Department of Interior for assistance with revising this plan

Thirdly, and of great importance, contact your state's US legislators and ask for their assistance in resolving the current flaws we are encountering in our wildlife management decision-making.  Our wildlife management organizations need our support, not our opposition.  Advocate for a decision-making system that includes more species science, more representation from the non-consumptive conservation public, and more input from species experts, both locally and nationally.  Only with this kind of decision-making will we succeed in protecting wild species for the enjoyment of all our citizens and future generations.    

Links and Resources:

To read more about the sandhill crane hunting issues on this blog, visit sandhill crane hunting.  
To see a timeline of wildlife conservation history, visit:  Origins of Wildlife Laws and Enforcement.  
And to read more about the joy of having eastern bluebirds around, visit bluebird family.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Vickie. Thanks for keeping up on this issue. I hope to write a post tomorrow on the Sandhill Crane hunt in Kentucky and link to your entire series.

    Besides sending emails to the governor and others, I will be sending out an email to my entire email list asking them to do the same.

    Your title says it all, ridiculous!


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