Sandhill cranes have made an amazing comeback since the days when Aldo Leopold wrote of their diminished numbers in his Sand County Almanac. There are now roughly 650,000 in the U.S. and that number is growing. Around the White River Marsh where we train our Whooping cranes to follow us, they are the most commonly seen wildlife.
That abundance has irritated many farmers who say Sandhills are as affective at picking out kernels of corn as their seed drills are at planting them. It has also prompted hunting groups to propose a regulated season. Fifteen U.S. States already allow controlled hunting of Sandhills and the controversy has been dividing the people of Tennessee for several years.
A survey commissioned by the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) and reported in the Tennessean newspaper determined that 84 percent of the general public supports legal hunting, so it is a hunter based state. However 62 percent are opposed to hunting Sandhills.
Within the hunting community, 42 percent are in favor of hunting Sandhills while 35 percent are opposed. That means that most of the general public of Tennessee, and many of the hunters don’t want Sandhills to be a game species so if the majority opinion was the only criteria, the answer would be obvious and the cranes could winter peacefully in Tennessee. But that is not the only issue.
The term “conservationist” is generally applied to individuals and groups that support wildlife and their habitats. That term also fits hunting groups. Ducks Unlimited is a leading conserver of wetland habitat. In fact, they just obtained a one million dollar grant to protect a thousand acres of habitat on the Platte River where Whooping cranes stop on their migration to Texas.
Through Duck Stamps, hunting fees and taxes on guns and ammunition, the hunting community funds more than their share of the conservation work being done to protect wildlife. The point is that all hunters are not kill crazy and all conservationists are not tree huggers.
The balance of nature is no longer occurring naturally. Human encroachment, habitat loss, predator removal, pollution and introduced species have influenced every aspect of what we refer to as wildlife. That means that when a population explodes, like deer for instance, the normal checks and balances cannot correct the situation. The result is often disease, starvation or over grazing that threatens other species. Having thrown off the pendulum so extensively, some would say it would be inhumane to let the animals suffer the consequences of our actions. Restoring a healthy balance, or at least one we can live with, becomes our obligation. Once we have meddled with the ebb and flow of the natural stability we can’t disown the responsibility.
So what mechanism can we use to restore equilibrium when a population gets out of hand? Regulated hunting is one option for keeping populations at a healthy balance.
There once was a time when Canada geese were rare. When I was a child, seeing a chevron honking their way south was an event worthy of reporting at the dinner table. Today they are hated by golfers and park users and anyone with a lakefront expanse of lawn. There are few, if any festivals to celebrate geese and what were once the harbingers of the changing seasons are now referred to as flying rats. There are an estimated seven million Canada geese in North America and the only difference between them and Sandhill cranes is population size.
Justifying a hunt to help balance the population may apply to the deer that cause highway accidents or decimate crops but Sandhill cranes have not yet become a nuisance. In general, they don’t foul our parks and we have not yet grown to hate them. If the population continues to grow that could happen sooner than we think but in the interim a ten percent annual harvest seems a lot for a population that just recently recovered. Maybe it is time to abide by the doctrine of democracy and let the majority rule.
If you would like to read more or vote in an online poll go to http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2013/jul/09/sandhill-crane-hunt-to-be-considered-again/
If you would like to comment you can email TWRA.Comment@TN.Gov (please include “Sandhill cranes” in the subject line)