President Jimmy Carter, an avid hunter, urges the Commission to not approve this season because of the whooping cranes that mingle with sandhill cranes in Tennessee throughout the winter.
Dr. Jane Goodall has urged the Commission to not aprove this season because of the peaceful, watchable wildlife qualities of the species and the endangered whooping cranes that mingle with them.
Dear Chairman McMillin,
I am writing to urge the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission to deny approval of the proposed sandhill crane season in Tennessee, for the following reasons: 1) hunting of sandhill cranes and watching sandhill cranes cannot successful occur in close proximity; 2) a sandhill crane season would increase the danger of accidental shooting of whooping cranes; 3) there is no evidence that the Eastern Population needs to be managed; 4) there is no evidence that sandhill crane crop depredation is a significant problem in Tennessee; 5) sandhill cranes are conservation ambassadors and offer the opportunity to educate the public, attract wildlife-watchers, boost the economy, and increase the potential for funding support for the Agency.
The Eastern Population History
Sandhill cranes have been hunted for many years in the west and mid-continent of the United States. The majority of these cranes are of the Lesser Sandhill Crane subspecies whose population numbers are approximately 650,000. The Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes that migrates through Tennessee is a separate and distinct population composed of the larger, Greater Sandhill Crane subspecies, and their numbers approximate 87,000.
Sandhill cranes were once rare in our state and were on the brink of extinction in the 1930’s. Without receiving any direct human assistance, they recovered as a result of wetland conservation, hunting regulations and their own ability to adapt to smaller breeding territories. Their dramatic come-back has been a reason for celebration in Tennessee for 22 years and has resulted in the oldest and most well-attended wildlife festival in our state, the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival.
The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is now the second largest staging area for sandhill cranes in the east, next to the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Management area in Indiana. This concentration of staging sandhill cranes attracts thousands of visitors annually to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.
Why can’t the hunting of sandhill cranes and wildlife watching co-exist in Tennessee?
Our eastern migrating sandhill crane population travels through a funnel-shaped migratory corridor that concentrates the population as it stages at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in search of good roosting sites and food. Sandhill cranes must roost in shallow water for safety. They are attracted to the vast wetland created by the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers and, of course, find the grain planted by TWRA for waterfowl. The areas designated for hunting are in close proximity to the refuge. Visitors come to the refuge from November through February to view cranes. It is impossible to peacefully enjoy the sight and sound of staging sandhill cranes when you also hear gun shots in the vicinity and know these guns are targeting the very birds you have come to admire.
In 2001, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership began to reintroduce Whooping Cranes to the eastern United States in an effort to establish a separate breeding population of the endangered species to further protect it from extinction. The original wild population, migrating from Canada to Texas, numbers less than 300 birds and recently faced drought conditions leading to the starvation of some and causing many of the birds to disperse beyond their traditional wintering grounds to find food and water, making the population more difficult to monitor.
The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and surrounding area is a major staging area for eastern Whooping Cranes as they migrate in the spring and fall where they mingle with sandhill cranes can easily be confused with sandhill cranes.
There are currently a maximum of 104 whooping cranes in the re-introduced eastern population. The designation of “Non-essential Experimental Population” (NEP) gives states the freedom to make hunting season decisions without the burden of considering an “endangered species”. The NEP designation, however, does not lessen the importance of each individual bird in the eastern Whooping Crane population to the survival of the species.
In the USFWS summary of the proposed Tennessee season, it is stated: “The proposed crane hunt in Tennessee would begin in early December and continue until late January. These proposed season dates would begin approximately 2 to 3 weeks after whooping cranes are normally migrating through Tennessee and would reduce the likelihood that sandhill crane hunters would encounter whooping cranes.”
According to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership database, whooping crane presence in the vicinity of the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge from December through January for the past five years is as follows:
2012/2013: 11 (2 in Davidson County, 9 in Meigs/Rhea Counties...one additional bird was released in Meigs Co in mid-Feb)
2011/2012: 11 (all in Meigs/Rhea Co area)
2010/2011: 21 (11 in Meigs/Rhea Co, 2 in Bradley Co, 8 in Hamilton Co)
2009/2010: 27 (14 in Meigs/Rhea Co, 2 in Bradley Co, 1 in Greene Co, 2 in Lawrence Co, 8 in Hamilton Co)
2008/2009: 22 (13 in Meigs/Rhea Co, 2 in Bradley Co, 2 in Davidson Co, 5 in Lawrence Co)
These numbers make it very likely that potential sandhill crane hunters will encounter whooping cranes.
The reproduction rate of the eastern whooping cranes is low, partially due to a slow maturity rate. One of the most tragic losses to the population was the shooting death in 2009 of the “First Family” female, the first female in the population to successfully fledge a chick in 2006. I describe this because the accidental shooting of even one whooping crane is not an ordinary loss but can represent an enormous set-back to the reproduction rate and genetic diversity of the population.
Need for Management
Research from the International Crane Foundation indicates that when breeding habitat is not optimal sandhill cranes will not breed. The increase in the eastern sandhill crane population has resulted in expansion of the species’ breeding territories to new states and provinces. For example, Ohio and Illinois are enjoying the return of their breeding population for the first time in over 80 years. In 2011, one of Ohio’s radio tracked breeding pairs spent a portion of the winter months at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.
There is no research that indicates hunting is beneficial in the reduction of sandhill crane crop depredation. In Tennessee, there is no evidence that cranes are having a detrimental impact on farmers. I have attached a summary of crop depredation complaints through 2010, provided by TWRA Region 3 Biologist, Kirk Miles. There are very few complaints. In 2011 and 2012 (not included in the chart), only one depredation permit was granted each year.
Sandhill cranes are majestic creatures, and their staging behavior is magical to observe and hear. There is no other wildlife species in Tennessee that creates this kind of spectacle, offers this type of visibility, tells as compelling a conservation story, or affords us as grand a viewing opportunity to both celebrate and use to educate the public about wildlife and wildlife conservation in Tennessee.
I sincerely hope the Commission will vote to keep the sandhill crane a celebrated, watchable wildlife species in Tennessee and deny approval of a sandhill crane season.
For more information visit the following link: http://kyc4sandhillcranes.com/eastern-states/tennessee/
Send you comments to: TWRA.Comment@tn.gov and give the subject title: sandhill cranes
Charlie Corbeil Photography
International Crane Foundation
More on this issue: http://vickiehenderson.blogspot.com/2013/07/sandhill-crane-hunting-in-tennessee.html
Julie Zickefoose: Sandhill Cranes Need Your Voice Now
TN Ornithological Society's Position on Sandhill Crane Hunt
Report from University of Wisconsin, Madison. Hunting could hurt genetic diversity.
Richard Simms Comments at Nooga.com
Wintering Sandhill Cranes: three blog posts with close up photos and stories about sandhill cranes wintering at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge; first post is at the bottom
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Other posts on this blog discussing key issues in Tennessee's Sandhill Crane hunt proposal in 2010.
Sandhill Crane Hunting in Tennessee--Multiple Factors say No!
Greater Sandhill Crane--An Intimate View of Family Life
Links to sandhill crane posts related to hunting proposals in both Kentucky and Tennessee
The history of sandhill crane hunt initiatives in the east at the Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes website
Summary of the 2011 USFWS National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Activity
Tennessee's Survey Results To find your state click here