Tennessee Sandhill Crane Hunting
The modern era of sandhill crane hunting in Tennessee began with the late waterfowl season on November 28, 2013, and ran through January 1, 2014.
The US, Canada, and Mexico manage sandhill crane harvest through the same regulatory mechanisms as waterfowl and other migratory game birds.
Listed as a game species, many central US states, Canadian provinces, and Mexico have been hunting cranes for over 50 years and all populations are stable or increasing. Hunting in the eastern US was closed until Kentucky’s 2011 season and then Tennessee’s 2013 season.
North American Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill cranes are the most numerous and wide-ranging of all worldwide crane species with a population exceeding 1 million. There are six distinct migratory populations of sandhill cranes with breeding ranges extending across North America. During migration, sandhill cranes congregate in large numbers at staging areas of mid-latitude states and then migrate to wintering areas in the southern US and Mexico.
Hunting occurs on four of the six migratory sandhill crane populations with over 26,000 cranes harvested annually. The hunting of sandhill cranes continues to grow in popularity since the first US hunts in 1961.
The Eastern Population of sandhill cranes has undergone an impressive recovery by rebounding from an estimated 25 breeding pairs in the 1930s to a minimum population of over 89,000 in recent years.
The core breeding range lies in south-central Ontario, Michigan, and Wisconsin extending into adjacent Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Quebec. In recent years this breeding range has expanded east to include several of the New England states, as well as south, including Indiana, Ohio, and Iowa.
The Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways are the main migratory routes of the Eastern Population. These cranes winter primarily in Florida and Georgia though recently cranes are wintering further north in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and even southern Ontario.
Tennessee Sandhill Cranes
The sandhill cranes migrating or wintering in Tennessee make up a large proportion of the Eastern Population.
The Eastern Population of sandhill cranes migrates through and winters in portions of Tennessee and is considered the world’s second-largest sandhill crane population. Tennessee has wintered an average of over 29,000 cranes.
Two areas serve as primary migration and wintering areas including the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge where thousands can be seen at one time.
Hop-in Refuge and surrounding lands near the Reelfoot Lake in west Tennessee attract several thousand sandhill cranes as well.
Smaller groups of cranes can be seen scattered across the Tennessee landscape too.
I thought the sandhill crane was protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Why is there now a hunting season?
By 1916, American pioneers had decimated many bird species by hunting to supply the commercial market, especially the millinery or hat market. The draining of marshes for farming purposes also contributed to the decline of many wetland birds, including the sandhill crane. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 halted the hunting of migratory birds unless a regulated harvest and population monitoring program was established. The sandhill crane (along with the mourning dove, mallard, wood duck, and over 800 other bird species) is listed as a protected migratory bird under the Migratory Treaty Act of 1918. Sandhill cranes have been hunted in the U.S. since 1961 and are currently hunted in 15 states, Canada, and Mexico.
A full report on the population status and harvest report can be found at http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/NewReportsPublications/PopulationStatus.html
I thought sandhill cranes were once on the brink of extinction. Isn’t it too soon to begin hunting them?
Currently the most common crane in world, the sandhill crane is no longer threatened with extinction. In 1925, the sandhill crane population that lives and migrates in the eastern U.S., known as the Eastern Population of sandhill cranes, consisted of approximately 50 birds in 1925. However, they have made a massive recovery with a current minimum population of over 87,000 and are now the second largest sandhill crane population in the North America. The trend in all U.S. populations is increasing or stable. Two non-migratory sub-species of sandhill crane, separate from the Eastern Population, found in Mississippi and Florida are on the federal endangered species list.
Will hunting sandhill cranes prevent the growth of the Eastern Population?
No. The implementation of a harvest regime on the eastern population of sandhill cranes has been planned since about 2004 and thoroughly vetted by all entities currently managing sandhill cranes under a variety of authorities, including all states east of the Mississippi river, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and their Canadian counterparts. The allowable harvest of the Eastern Population of sandhill cranes is very conservative, so that this population will continue to grow. Other populations of sandhill cranes in the US have been managed for over 50 years with similar strategies that include allowable harvest. All populations of sandhill cranes in the US are stable or growing.
Will the sandhill crane hunting season in Tennessee endanger whooping cranes?
No. Since the reestablishment of sandhill crane hunting in the US in 1961, only 5 whooping cranes have been killed due to mistaken identity as snow geese or sandhill cranes. Additionally, all Tennessee sandhill crane hunters are required to pass an internet-based crane identification test before hunting. The purpose of this test is to improve hunter’s awareness and ability to distinguish between sandhill cranes and protected species which may be encountered while hunting. Also, each sandhill crane permit contains a bird ID section to further aid in distinguishing the difference between sandhill and whooping cranes.
Will sandhill crane hunting affect bird watching opportunities?
No. Other states with long-standing seasons report no effect on crane watching. Several states with crane seasons host annual festivals to celebrate the birds’ arrival. Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, for example, promote both crane hunting and crane viewing. Hunters and wildlife enthusiasts alike travel across the continent to encounter these birds. TWRA intends to continue to support the annual sandhill crane festival at the Hiwassee Refuge in Birchwood, Tennessee.
I am concerned that hunting pressure will cause the sandhill cranes to move to an area other than Hiwassee Refuge and disrupt crane viewing and the annual crane festival.
Most of the time game animals under hunting pressure flee to localized areas where there is no hunting pressure. This means that it is likely that the number of sandhill cranes on the Hiwassee Refuge will actually increase. It is unlikely that the migratory route and historical staging areas of the sandhill crane will change, as the knowledge of these routes and stopovers is passed down from generation to generation.
Will the Agency make additional revenue from this opportunity?
No. Similar to many other quota hunt opportunities, this is not a revenue generating hunt. Quota hunts are typically very popular with participating sportsmen as they provide special or unique access to certain public lands or, in this case, species. Costs of such specialized opportunities are often minimal and offset by other sportsmen activities.
How do people hunt sandhill cranes?
Most hunters use decoys set up in agricultural fields. Hunters scout for fields where cranes are feeding in the evening; they set up the next morning hoping the birds will return. Sandhill cranes are extremely wary and difficult to decoy.
Are sandhill cranes good to eat?
Many hunters consider sandhill cranes the best tasting of all migratory game birds. The early 19th century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark dined on cranes when they reached the Columbia River. In an account published in 1622, Edward Winslow and William Bradford noted that during the Pilgrim’s first year in North America, a “fat crane” was a welcome addition to the dinner table. From this and other information, many have suggested that sandhill crane was likely to have been on the original Thanksgiving dinner table. Numerous recipes for sandhill cranes are available online or in wild game cookbooks. Most recipes call for cooking cranes like any other wildfowl; though some cooks prefer to grill the breast meat like a steak.