Migratory sandhill cranes to be hunted in Kentucky

In the Tampa Bay area, drivers wait patiently for sandhill cranes to stroll across pavement. Some governments even post "crane crossing" signs to help protect the tall, stately birds.

But in Kentucky, there's no such affection. For the first time in almost 90 years, hunters are allowed to kill a limited number of migratory sandhill cranes. The birds typically leave their nesting grounds in Canada and the Great Lakes each winter to fly to Florida.

The nearly monthlong season runs until Jan. 15, with no more than 400 birds being harvested. If the hunt goes smoothly, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to repeat it next year. Kentucky is the only state east of the Mississippi River to allow the hunt, although Tennessee has considered a similar proposal.

The hunters' targets are slightly bigger cousins of Florida's sandhill cranes, a protected species that lives here year-round.

Robert Burke, a former Valrico resident who recently moved to Indiana, said he couldn't believe the Kentucky plan when he read about it in a local newspaper.

"It just doesn't make sense," he said. "It's the same birds that migrate to Tampa.

"When we lived in Valrico, they would come to our neighborhood and walk around," Burke said. "It was almost like pure innocence."

The news hit hard at the Florida Trail Association office in Gainesville, where plans are under way for the first Florida Crane and Nature Festival on Jan. 14. The event will celebrate the migration of thousands of sandhill cranes to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, said Dennis Miranda, the association's executive director.

"I am horrified to think that any state would open up a hunting season with the notion that shooting cranes is a sport," Miranda said.

Although Kentucky hunters have described the bird as a wary and challenging prey, Miranda described the cranes' behavior at Paynes Prairie as more like sitting ducks.

"These birds will land in any marsh or a field in flocks," he said. "I think it's a tragedy."

In Kentucky, supporters say the bag limits protect the crane population from being diminished, and the hunt got the blessing of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after years of scientific study.

State regulators authorized the crane season after hunters accustomed to targeting sandhill cranes in some western states pressed for permission to hunt the species, said Mark Marraccini, a Kentucky Fish and Wildlife spokesman.

A group of 332 people paid a $3 application fee to receive a permit, he said. For those who accept the permit, there is an additional $30 fee as well as the cost of a state hunting license.

Mark Nethery, president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen, said he has no desire to hunt cranes but believes it should be fair game for others.

"Some people are under the impression (cranes) are being shot for pure pleasure," Nethery said. "They're actually very good table fare."

He said Kentucky has a proud history of managing its wildlife resources, bringing several species back from dangerously low population levels, including the sandhill crane, wild turkey, bobcat and white-tailed deer.

Kentucky regulators invoked conservation measures that include designating a portion of the Barren River Lake area where the cranes are known to flock and rest as offlimits to hunters, Nethery said.

Regulators also scheduled the season to avoid the peak migration time for whooping cranes, an endangered species that sometimes flies with sandhill cranes. Those who get crane-hunting permits also have to take a whooping crane identification course so they won't set their sights on the wrong bird, Marraccini said.

Several Kentucky Audubon chapters have opposed the hunt. Audubon of Florida has taken no position, said Julie Wraithmell, the organization's wildlife conservation director.

She said some Florida bird-watchers have sounded off on Internet sites, generally offended by the idea of sandhill cranes as prey for humans.

"Some species get that kind of iconic stature for us," Wraithmell said. "People hold them in high regard."

The National Audubon Society has no position on the sport as long as the target populations continue to thrive, spokeswoman Delta Willis said.

Experts say all species of sandhill cranes in North America were in serious decline in the early 1900s, mostly because of hunting. Populations have rebounded in the past 50 years, with estimates of 500,000 or more. The sandhill cranes that migrate through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida have been estimated at about 60,000.

Although there are subtle differences in appearance, the biggest distinction between migratory sandhill cranes and the Florida subspecies that lives here year-round is that the wintering birds tend to move in flocks, Wraithmell said. Florida sandhill cranes travel in pairs and defend a defined territory against other cranes. The migratory cranes usually head back north in late February or early March.

Migratory sandhill cranes to be hunted in Kentucky 12/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2011 10:00pm]

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