Thursday, August 21, 2014 · 2:18 a.m.
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It was standing room only in a Knoxville conference room in August as supporters and opponents gathered as the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission considered a hunting season for sandhill cranes. (Photo: Richard Simms)

Tennessee will have the first sandhill crane hunt in the state's modern-day history beginning Nov. 28. The historic step has been down a tumultuous and controversial path, however.

In 2011, the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission deferred the decision for two years. It was standing room only in a Knoxville conference room Thursday and Friday as wildlife officials, hunters, wildlife watchers and conservationists from across the state gathered to consider whether to hunt sandhill cranes during a three-year experimental season. 

Numerous speakers argued for and against a hunting season. The opposition has been led primarily by members of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Vickie Henderson spoke on behalf of TOS.

Much of Henderson's presentation to commissioners focused on concerns about the potential for inadvertent kills of endangered whooping cranes.

"I'm disappointed," Henderson said, following the vote. "I've loved and learned about sandhill cranes for 13 years now. I'm also concerned about whooping cranes. Hunters are good and well-educated about identifying different species, but we're still very concerned because we've put so many years into saving [whooping cranes]."

Henderson said there are a mere 104 whooping cranes in the entire East, and most migrate through Tennessee. While adult whooping cranes are almost solid white, she showed several photographs illustrating that juvenile whooping cranes and sandhills have very similar plumage and are hard to identify in the field.

Biologists countered that they reduced legal shooting hours to avoid low-light situations and said that before receiving a permit hunters will be required to pass a mandatory bird identification class.

Wildlife Commissioner Jamie Woodson said, "I feel very confident that this does not present a serious threat. Hunters have had a long tradition of distinguishing between different species ... They must distinguish between a gadwall and a hen mallard, and there are consequences if they don't."

Consequences include potential enforcement under state or federal law. However, because the eastern population of whooping cranes is considered "experimental," they do not carry the same severe penalties traditionally applied to other endangered species.

TOS and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have partnered on the annual Sandhill Crane Festival at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County for 22 years. The festival, attended by thousands of locals and out-of-state tourists, has helped generate a significant "emotional" attachment to the sandhills among the nonhunting public. Henderson said that one study showed the festival generated $232,000 in positive economic impact on the area last year. She said the decision to hunt the cranes will definitely have a negative impact on the festival.

"One foundation provided a $10,000 grant for the crane festival in 2013, and they've already told us they will not make anymore donations if a hunt takes place," Henderson said. "We've also had a number of volunteers that said if they hunt sandhill cranes [they] won't volunteer anymore. So there's an impact because people are very passionate about this issue."

The contentious meeting was the very first for newly appointed wildlife commissioner David Watson from Chattanooga. Before the vote, Watson said that hunting and watching wildlife do not have to be mutually exclusive.

"There are other festivals being held now in these other states that are hunting sandhill cranes, and those festivals are coexisting with hunting," he said. "There might be an initial emotional backlash [to a hunting season], but I think it would recover."

Woodson said, "I think we have an opportunity to accommodate all users. To say we've got to do one or the other—that is a false choice."

During the official public comment period, wildlife officials said they received 1,073 comments, including letters from former President Jimmy Carter and wildlife researcher Dr. Jane Goodall. Both were among the 888 comments opposed to sandhill crane hunts. Many speakers argued that wildlife commissioners should represent all Tennesseans, not just hunters.

Others, however, argued that commissioners should make the decision based on science and biology, not emotion.

Dr. Gray Anderson, TWRA's assistant chief of wildlife, said that sandhill cranes are considered a "native" species in Tennessee. He said that in the early part of the century sandhill crane numbers did fall to extremely low levels, although no one knows exactly how low. The birds in the midcontinent region rebounded first, and states there have been hunting sandhills since the 1960s. Some hunters refer to the birds as "rib-eyes in the sky" because of their tasty flesh.

The eastern population of sandhill cranes began to rebound in significant numbers about 25 years ago. Anderson said the eastern population now numbers approximately 87,000 birds. A significant number of those birds do pass through Southeast Tennessee, with tens of thousands remaining in and around the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge for most of the winter.

The sandhill crane hunt details
Wildlife officials passed a season, bag limit and other regulations significantly lower than what could have been allowed under federal guidelines.

The season will be open from Nov. 28 through Jan. 1 (ending 17 days before the 2014 Sandhill Crane Festival). Hunting will only be allowed east of Highway 56 and south of I-40. There will be 400 packets issued in a public drawing held Oct.19 at Birchwood Elementary School. Each packet will include three permits. Hunters will be required to have a regular hunting license and a waterfowl license to participate in the drawing. Sandhill hunters will also be required to possess a federal migratory bird stamp. Each hunter will also have to show proof that they've successfully passed an online bird identification course before their permits are valid.

Legal shooting hours will be from sunrise to 3 p.m. each day (to avoid low-light conditions and make for easier bird identification). Hunters will be required to tag each downed bird, just like tagging a deer. They will also be required to check in their harvests by mail and fill out a mandatory end-of-season diary.

Thursday notes
The majority of the discussion at the Knoxville meeting occurred during Thursday's committee meeting.

Dr. Robert Brewer, president of the Cleveland State Community College Wildlife Society, said, however, "Hunting and crane viewing can occur together. Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge only exists because of hunters' dollars who have provided the habitat and maintenance of this area that attracted the cranes."

Avid birdwatcher Ken Dubke from Chattanooga emphasized he has no personal objections to hunting. But he thinks the benefits the sandhill cranes bring to the area far outweigh any of the benefits of hunting them.

"More money can be made from people coming to observe the cranes than can be made from shooting 50 or 100 of them," Dubke said.

Ben Yandell with the Kentucky Sandhill Crane Coalition, formed to try and stop crane hunting in that state, said by virtue of what they do, wildlife commissioners are typically pro-hunting.

"As nonhunters, we do not have a seat at the table," Yandell said. "We ask that before you vote you take that into consideration and remember those of us who do not have a seat at the table."

Numerous speakers agreed with Yandell, pointing out that the wildlife commission is expected to represent everyone in Tennessee, not just hunters.

Frank Duff spoke out in support of a hunting season. Duff said he is a hunter and owns a farm adjacent to the refuge. Duff said he plants 80-100 acres of crops every year. He said in past years he has had a federal depredation permit that allowed him to kill sandhill cranes that were damaging his crops.

"It doesn't work," Duff told wildlife commissioners. "With a depredation permit, you cannot shoot them with any kind of concealment. You're not allowed to even hide behind a bush or in a tree line. You drive into a field with a shotgun, but they're smart and they leave. As soon as you're gone, they come back. And if you do shoot one, you're required to leave it to rot in the field."

Tennessee Sen. Mike Bell spoke out in support of a hunting season. Bell, who represents nine Southeast Tennessee counties, including the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, said wildlife commissioners need to base their decisions on the science and not public opinion.

"Are we going to make our decisions about what we hunt based on emotions or on biology and best management practices?" Bell asked. "I hope you will listen to the science and the expert biologists at TWRA and vote in favor of a hunting [crane] season."

Prior to voting in favor of the hunting season, Commissioner Jim Bledsoe said, "I don't see that we're taking anything away from anybody. The festival is still going to be supported, and the cranes are still going to be here."

Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.

Updated @ 12:15 p.m. on 8/23/13 to add more information as it became available.

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