Kentucky wants to open hunting on eastern population of Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Dance
This Sandhill Crane couple is dancing out of season, just for fun.

Kentucky’s Fish and Wildlife Commission decided to start hunting sandhill cranes, aiming to shoot 400 of them this fall. The KY legislature and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still have to say okay, but it looks like a done deal. Nine of 10 states in the Central Flyway already hunt sandhill cranes. Three states hunt cranes the fly through the Rockies. But Kentucky would be the first to hunt the relatively small population of sandhill cranes that move between Canada and FL.

That’s especially worrying because this route overlaps with the route of migrating whooping cranes. Hunters are supposed to only shoot if they are sure it’s a sandhill (which is grey and pretty easy to distinguish from the bigger, white, endangered whooper). But with astonishing regularity they keep shooting the whoopers. (Four were killed this winter and recently a guy in Indiana got off with a $1 fine, court costs and 6 months probation.)

“I am very disappointed that Kentucky will be the first state on the Eastern flyway to open season on cranes,” says writer and naturalist Julie Zickefoose, who is working on a new book, The Bluebird Effect: My Life-changing Encounters With Wild Birds, due out next year, which includes a chapter on sandhills. She’s led a charge, joined by many bird groups and 10,000 Birds, which carries her blog, to fight bringing crane hunting to the eastern flyway. Tennessee recently put a two-year hold on hunting cranes and now some are taking aim at KY lawmakers.

The U.S. has several subspecies and big populations of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensi) that seldom mix. The mid-continental population (MCP) is by far the biggest, according to the Central Flyway, the group that oversees hunting of migratory birds in the middle of the country. By contrast the Rocky Mountain (RMP) is about 20,000 and the Eastern Population (EP) is about 30,000 to 40,000.

Eastern sandhill crane migration route / Management Plan for Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes

The numbers are all fuzzy and controversial. Hunters like to stress their abundance; birders point out that the species was nearly wiped out and it’s still a rare treat to see them.

Hunting sandhill cranes is polarizing not just because they are a freakishly delightful spectacle. Hunting was called off in 1916, so nobody can claim it’s an old family tradition. And who would want to eat one?

Sandhill crane hunting started up again in 1961 and more states have picked it since. In 2009, hunters killed about 25,000 sandhill cranes. A 2010 FWS report on Sandhill Crane hunting and populations said the population is stable, but noted “harvest has been increasing at a higher rate than population growth.”

Zickefoose argues the harvest amounts to taking 6% of the Central Flyway population every year and that it’s just too high a toll on a bird that has such a hard time reproducing.

Hunters kill about 15,000 birds in the Central Flyway; about half of which die in TX. Hunters in AK, AZ and NM shoot another 1,000. Canadians take down 5,000 to 10,000, the FWS says. They claim the Mexican crane hunt is tiny–about 2,000 to 3,000.  Zickefoose says it’s much worse: “the crane take in Mexico is a free-for-all: neither regulated nor recorded.”

Across the country birders and animal tourists far outnumber and outspend hunters. Even in Texas. Nebraska, which attracts thousands of birders from around the world to the Rowe Sanctuary and Kearney each spring to see the cranes, is the only state that recognizes who’s paying the bills.

Imagine how many more people would be able to enjoy sandhill cranes if we didn’t keep shooting them. From 1975 to 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that North American hunters shot 27,000 sandhill cranes each year. That’s a total loss of about 900,000 birds.

For hunters, it’s a fleeting amusement–even if you consider they spend an average three days in the field. The FWS says that in the 2000-1 season only about 7,000 of those licensed to kill cranes went out even once. (It’s stale data, but its the best they offer, sorry. Game managers have a hard time tracking how many people are actually hunting cranes because the license can be pretty general.) Obviously not all those specific 900,000 birds would be alive today, but its clear many would be–along with offspring and descendants. If you live in the middle of the country, odds are you’re one of the people who missed out on seeing a sandhill crane because somebody else thought it would be fun to shoot one.

pelicanpuffinhummingbird Where to SEE WEIRD BIRDS (All the interesting birds: pelicans, puffins, prairie chickens, vultures, hummingbirds)

Read about the long history of hunters shooting whooping cranes

Check out the Fish and Wildlife Service report on Sandhill Crane hunting and populations


PARTICIPANTS Fishing % Hunting % Wildlife Watching %
TOTAL U.S. 29,962,000 13 12,534,000 5 71,0068,000 31
IL 1,032,000 11 272,000 3 2,359,000 24
IN 741,000 15 256,000 5 1,824,000 38
IA 447,000 19 213,000 9 1,111,000 48
KS 370,000 18 195,000 9 787,000 37
MI 1,104,000 14 722,000 9 2,947,000 38
MN 1,143,000 28 540,000 13 1,946,000 48
NB 192,000 14 105,000 8 439,000 32
ND 105,000 21 85,000 17 134,000 26
OH 1,286,000 14 482,000 5 3,342,000 38
SD 95,000 16 89,000 15 266,000 44
TX 2,400,000 14 996,000 6 4,111,000 24
WI 1,028,000 24 654,000 15 1,711,000 39



Wildlife Watching
North Dakota

Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, 2006


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