The Sandhill Cranes of Kentucky

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) has created a hunting season for Sandhill Cranes, a bird not formerly hunted legally in Kentucky. They are already hunted legally in 12 other states, all of which are in the West. Kentucky is the first of the eastern states to take this step, although others are considering it.

In common with other states’ departments of natural resources and “conservation” agencies, the KDFWR claims that their mission is to manage wildlife for all citizens. This claim is belied by their precipitate decision to allow the killing of inoffensive Sandhill Cranes, a much-loved migratory visitor to Kentucky. The process to open this new hunting season began in 2010, and was mostly carried out “under the radar,” unbeknownst to most citizens.

The eight men on the governing commission of KDFWR are nominated by hunters and fishermen; thus, they represent only a tiny percentage of the population of Kentucky. Members need only have held a hunting or fishing license in the state for two years. When the suggestion to open a season on Sandhill Cranes was made, only one public meeting was held to discuss it, thereby showing little inclination to hear the full range of public opinion.

Even though the KDFWR earns revenue from the sale of license plates with pretty pictures of wildlife and the slogan “Nature’s Finest,” implying that they celebrate nature, the department is clearly more interested in promoting hunting – including finding ways to increase violence towards wildlife, e.g., adding Sandhill Cranes to the list of animals legally available for slaughter.

CASH abolish sport hunting cranes

Regional Flyway Councils set migratory bird policy in the U.S. They have created a “management” plan for Sandhill Cranes over a number of years, one of the objectives of which is to provide more hunting opportunities. Other objectives are increased options for wildlife watching, and management of flocks to avoid crop depredations. The latter is an issue in some Midwestern states, but not in Kentucky, as the birds are not residents there.

Sandhill Cranes only migrate through Kentucky at various points, dependent upon the weather. The Eastern Flyway Council allowed each state to make their own proposal regarding the cranes. In Kentucky, the state legislature was not involved in the decision, as hunting regulations do not have to be approved or voted on by them. They are sent to the Administrative and Regulation Review Subcommittee, but it basically functions as a rubber stamp on whatever measures the KDFWR asks for.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency developed a Sandhill Crane hunting proposal for the state at the behest of a petition from local hunters, but a strong response from the TN Ornithological Society and other groups persuaded them to postpone approval of the hunting season until more research could be done. In Kentucky, however, the KDFWR Commissioner pushed it through, insisting there was great hunter demand. Despite this assertion, only 330 permits were applied for statewide; as of end of hunting season, 50 birds were reported killed.

Carol Besse, President of the Kentucky Ornithological Society, said that a broad coalition of environmental, conservation, and birding groups worked indefatigably to be heard in time for the August 1st public input deadline, but without success. In her Louisville Courier-Journal op-ed piece, Besse wrote that the International Crane Foundation, “the foremost authority on cranes and an organization that neither endorses nor opposes hunting cranes, was refused the opportunity to present scientific research on crane populations prior to the commission’s vote on the hunt proposal.” Besse further pointed out that the ICF’s painstaking research was callously dismissed as mere “magical numbers” by the KDFWR commissioners “in their headlong rush to be the first state in the Eastern United States to hunt Sandhill Cranes in almost 100 years.”

The Sandhill Crane is an impressive bird, with a distinctive long neck and legs. They can be from 3 to 5 feet tall and weigh from 6.5 to 14 lbs. Their broad wingspan – typically 5 to over 6 feet – makes them  a very skilled soaring bird, similar to hawks and eagles. Using thermal winds to lift them up, Sandhill Cranes can stay aloft for many hours with only occasional flapping of their wings.

Plumage is generally in various shades of gray. Forehead and crown have reddish skin, and the face, chin, upper throat, and nape range from white to pale gray. A white cheek patch is present on the adult birds. Juvenile plumage develops from cinnamon brown to gray during the first year. The cranes have long black beaks, and black legs and feet.

Sandhill Cranes inhabit open grasslands, meadows, and fresh water wetlands; their nests are usually constructed in low mounds made of vegetation found in the nesting area. They congregate in huge numbers during migration.

Although their scientific name is “Grus canadensis,” the appellation “Sandhill” was added because of their annual use of Nebraska’s sand hills region, an important stopover on their migratory route. Hundreds of thousands of birds arrive there annually as they fly south for the winter.

Eastern Sandhill Cranes were hunted almost to extinction just a century ago. When the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, they began to make a comeback. Now, according to the USGS, the leading threat to the Sandhill Cranes, which include six sub-species, is the loss and degradation of wetland habitats. Excessive water withdrawals and potential dam construction projects are another serious survival issue. Human-caused loss of roosting habitats has led to increased concentration of migrating crane flocks, which adds to the risk of more disease and other threats. In the prairie regions, the USGS states that “Over-hunting poses a potential threat to certain segments……of the Sandhill Crane populations. Lead and mycotoxin poisoning, abnormal predation pressures, and collisions with fences, vehicles, and utility lines are of local concern for various populations.”

One cogent argument against hunting Sandhill Cranes in Kentucky is that no study has been done of the potential impact on the local population. It is unknown as to whether it can sustain a hunt. On behalf of Sandhill Cranes, 17 organizations enlisted, signing a letter opposing the hunt – from Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes and Louisville Beckham Bird Club to local Audubon chapters and the Sierra Club; individuals from other states, including Ohio and Tennessee, also joined in.

As is usual with animal advocacy versus the hunting lobby, the pro-hunting faction erroneously portrayed all crane supporters as being generally anti-hunting. They brought in the Kentucky League of Sportsmen and the NRA, both groups possessed of huge e-mail lists. People who wanted to save the cranes wrote lengthy, thoughtful letters about why hunting cranes is wrong, but their adversaries mainly replied to a mass robo-e-mailing.

A major advocate for Sandhill Cranes is the Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes, founded in 2010 to make the public aware of the proposed crane hunt. Mary W. Yandell, Co-Founder of KCSC, told us:

“The Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes, which has both hunting and non-hunting members, gathered thousands of signatures and spoke at every public opportunity to express opposition to the proposed Kentucky Sandhill season. Despite a general lack of interest in hunting cranes and obvious support for maintaining the status of the cranes in the state, KDFWR did exactly what it set out to do. Worse, the Department’s approach was hostile to opposing views, belittling and misrepresenting those attempting to bring a broader perspective into the process. As in most states, the general public has literally no vote – zero – on what happens to wildlife in the state. As un-American as it seems, what we have is conservation without representation.”

As Carol Besse put it:

“There is simply no good reason to hunt Sandhill Cranes, and there are many reasons not to. Kentuckians are currently able to hunt deer, elk, bear, squirrel, rabbit, turkey, quail, grouse, dove, woodcock, snipe, crow, and dozens of species of waterfowl including ducks, geese, coots, mergansers, moorhens, gallinules and rails. The hunters of Kentucky were not vocal on the issue of hunting cranes until several groups closely aligned with the KDFWR stirred them up by falsely claiming that opposition was against all hunting and if this proposal was stopped, the next step would be to end all hunting and to come and take their guns away. It was easy to gin up support for the hunt by using lies and scare tactics such as these, and the agency should be ashamed at having done so.”

Nationwide, state conservation agencies receive most of their support from only a small proportion of the populace: basically, the hunting and gun lobbies. Unfortunately, not enough non-hunting, wildlife-friendly citizens are aware that wildlife management agencies only feel accountable to hunters – which is why they promote the unfettered massacre of wildlife that supposedly “belongs” to all the residents of a state. In Kentucky and elsewhere, the majority of people who could help protect vulnerable animals are simply not well-enough informed nor actively taking a hand in preserving their state’s precious wildlife. And agencies like the KDFWR are colluding in keeping the citizenry ignorant when they refuse to hold sufficient open meetings on topics like the Sandhill Crane hunts.

As we have told our readers in these pages before, hunting numbers are ever declining, while wildlife watching is growing in popularity. Again, quoting Besse: “Developing opportunities to watch the Sandhill Cranes as they migrate through Kentucky would be a far smarter, more fiscally responsible and strategic use of the [KDFWR’s] resources than pursuing an unpopular hunt that will raise no revenue and will alienate many.”

Another salient point from Ceci Mitchell, of the Frankfort chapter of the National Audubon Society:

“One overriding issue with the KY crane hunt is that it does not seem wise economically. When KY Fish and Wildlife Resources only charges $3 for a permit to kill two Sandhill Cranes, but a KY state park charges $30 per person to take an afternoon van ride to sit and watch the cranes – how can KY afford to cater to the wildlife hunters for so little income than to capitalize on the wildlife watchers paying ten times the fee? It does not compute!”
The Sandhill Crane hunting begun this winter is considered experimental for 3 years and will be evaluated after that. If enough Sandhill Crane advocates keep up the pressure against the hunt, there is a chance we could curtail it in future. Otherwise, with Kentucky’s precedent, other eastern states may follow, and that would be a crime against these magnificent birds.
With thanks to the Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes , the Kentucky Ornithological Society, and the International Crane Foundation: Learn how you can help these non-profit groups save the majestic crane by visiting their websites. And read about the TN Sandhill Crane Festival that was held in January on Vickie Henderson’s site at:

Carol Besse, President of the Kentucky Ornithological Society, and Mary W. Yandell, Co-Founder of Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes were interviewed for this article.
E.M. Fay is Associate Editor of the Wildlife Watch Binocular and C.A.S.H. Courier.


Contact Us

Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting / C.A.S.H.
P.O. Box 562
New Paltz, NY 12561