The Case for Hunting Sandhill Cranes in Kentucky


Mar 11, 2001
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The Case for Hunting Sandhill Cranes

Monday, April 18, 2011

FRANKFORT, Ky. - Opinion pieces opposing a proposal before the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to allow for a limited harvest of sandhill cranes have appeared in several newspapers and on the Internet in recent months. Here are the facts about the proposal.

The Eastern Population of sandhill cranes migrates through and winters in portions of Kentucky. Sandhill cranes are the most abundant crane species on the planet, with more than 700,000 spending part of their year in North America. The Eastern Population is the world's second largest sandhill crane population, numbering between 60,000 and 100,000 birds.

This population continues to grow and has become increasingly visible in Kentucky in recent years. Peak counts in Kentucky now approach 20,000 cranes in the Barren River Lake area.

Sandhill cranes are classified as a game species by Congress under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. They are hunted in 13 other states, three Canadian provinces and Mexico. The midcontinent population of sandhill cranes, which occurs in the central United States, Canada and Mexico, has been hunted for 50 years. Two other populations of sandhill cranes are also hunted in the U.S. All of these hunted populations continue to increase.

Hunters prize the opportunity to pursue sandhill cranes for the excellent table fare and the challenging hunt they provide. They are hunted in fields over decoys very similar to the way hunters pursue Canada geese.

This increasingly visible population of sandhill cranes prompted sportsmen and sportswomen in the eastern United States and Kentucky to request a crane hunting opportunity here.

A management plan must first be in place and approved by the Flyway Councils (cooperative management bodies consisting of state, federal, provincial and university biologists) where that species occurs before a population of migratory bird may be hunted. A management plan is a comprehensive document that examines all aspects of the life history of a population. The Management Plan for the Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes was developed with the input and review of more than 50 professional wildlife biologists in the U.S. and Canada.

These biologists, with decades of successful experience managing migratory birds, come from state and provincial wildlife agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, universities and other conservation organizations. This plan took more than 10 years of careful work to develop and takes a conservative approach toward the harvest of this species. Above all else, the management plan ensures that hunting will not have a negative effect on the population.

Beyond hunting, a management plan directs wildlife professionals to needed areas of research and management. The Eastern Population crane management plan, which would allow for a limited hunting opportunity in the eastern United States and Canada, was approved by the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyway Councils in July 2010.

Once the management plan was in place, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife personnel began the careful process of considering if a season would be appropriate in the Commonwealth. Countless hours were spent studying all aspects of hunting cranes in Kentucky. Biologists dedicate their lives to wildlife conservation and will not support a plan they believe might pose a threat to the cranes or any other wildlife species.

The plan that would allow hunting of sandhill cranes in Kentucky has been carefully crafted to: 1) have no impact on the eastern population of sandhill cranes as a whole or in Kentucky; 2) have as small an impact on nature watching as possible; 3) protect the experimental eastern population of whooping cranes; and 4) provide hunting opportunity for those who are passionate about hunting cranes.

This proposed season is structured to minimize impact to bird and nature watchers as well. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife considers bird and nature watchers important members of the conservation community. Department employees have kept the Kentucky Ornithological Society (KOS) and other birding groups informed of the status of the management plan's development.

Bird watching and hunting are not mutually exclusive. Sandhill cranes are hunted in many of the states where people also go to see them. Kentucky hunters and bird watchers already pursue such migratory bird species as ducks, geese and mourning doves with little or no impact to each other's groups.

The proposed sandhill crane plan will provide hunting opportunity for those who are passionate about hunting migratory birds and still provide for the needs of nature viewing public.

Some people simply object to hunting. Others enjoy hunting and consider it an integral and important part of our heritage. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife understands both viewpoints. As an agency of professional biologists, we have carefully considered if hunting a sandhill crane is somehow different than hunting a mourning dove, a wood duck or a wild turkey. We believe there is no difference.

The biology is indisputable. The Eastern Population of sandhill cranes can sustain limited hunting. Cranes have been hunted in the United States for 50 years, and flock numbers in all of the hunted populations are at all-time highs. The interest in the species generated by the hunters pursuing these birds has been instrumental in the successful management of this species.

Hunters have paid the bills for many decades to build the Eastern Population of sandhill cranes to its current record numbers. Hunters now are requesting the opportunity to pursue a limited number of these birds. The hunters have a valid point. And the biology supports them.

Author John Brunjes earned his Ph.D. from Texas Tech University. Currently a migratory bird biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, his work includes research on waterfowl, mourning doves, shorebirds, American woodcock and endangered least terns. John has served as Chairman of the Mississippi Flyway Nongame Technical Section and is currently Vice-Chair of the Eastern Management Unit Dove Technical Committee and serves on the National Dove Task Force.


The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manages, regulates, enforces and promotes responsible use of all fish and wildlife species, their habitats, public wildlife areas and waterways for the benefit of those resources and for public enjoyment. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is an agency of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. For more information on the department, visit our website at

John Brunjes, Ph.D. (800) 858-1549, ext. 4500

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