Tens of thousands of sandhill cranes descend on southeast Tennessee every winter. With wingspans of up to 6 feet, they are some of the largest migratory birds around.
Tourists and bird watchers travel from around the country to Tennessee to view them. A whole festival in January is devoted to the birds.
Now, they could be in the sights of hunters, too.
The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission - for the second time in three years - is considering a sandhill crane hunting season.
If the commission approves the hunting plan at its August meeting, Tennessee would become the 16th state to allow crane hunting. The commission delayed a decision in January 2011.
The central question in the current debate is not whether the sandhill crane population can sustain a level of hunting - biologists on both sides of the issue agree it can - but whether a hunt is the right thing to do given how they attract bird watchers to the state.
Organized hunting groups, led by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, support a sandhill crane season. But the plan has raised concerns among birders, and the Tennessee Ornithological Society says the cranes are too valuable a resource to hunt.
"What we want to see is the opportunity to hunt the cranes but do it in a wise and sustainable fashion and in a way that recognizes and helps promote the viewing opportunities as well," Mike Butler, the federation's CEO, told the commission in late June.
Melinda Welton, chairwoman of the Ornithological Society's conservation policy committee, said Tennesseans oppose hunting the birds, the largest species found in the state. She said by allowing crane hunting, the commission and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which it oversees, risk a major public outcry.
"I think the agency is going to get quite a bit of grief," she said. "It is a golden opportunity for the agency to gain a lot of goodwill by proclaiming this the most watchable wildlife species in the state and celebrating that."
The hunt plan
The sandhill crane population in Tennessee is estimated as high as 87,000. There are as many as 650,000 of the birds nationwide.
Because the birds are migratory and cross state and international borders, Tennessee can't make a decision about hunting on its own.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sets the terms of any hunt and has proposed a 60-day season in Tennessee. The agency also sets a limit on the number of birds hunters can kill. Tennessee is obligated to act, one way or another, on a hunting season.
Tennessee officials can't make a hunting season more expansive than what the federal government will allow, said Gary Anderson, TWRA's assistant chief of wildlife. The state could decide not to allow the hunting.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed:
- A 60-day season concurrent with the state's late waterfowl season starting in November.
- A hunting zone east of state Highway 56 and south of Interstate 40 in southeast Tennessee.
- Seven hundred seventy-five crane-hunting permits, with each permit allowed to take up to three birds.
- A quota and check-in system. Hunters would be required to report and tag any killed birds.
- The Hiawasee Wildlife Refuge, north of Chattanooga, would be off limits to hunting. The refuge is home to the annual Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival.
- A halt to hunting immediately before and during the crane festival.
- A requirement that all permit holders undergo a course proving they can tell the difference between a sandhill crane and a whooping crane. Whooping cranes are a federally endangered species with a nationwide population estimated at less than 600. Whooping cranes often intermix with sandhill cranes.
Jeb Barzen, the International Crane Foundation's director of field ecology, said the organization doesn't weigh in on whether states should allow hunting. But he said the foundation believes the overall take of 10 percent of the population across all states is too high.
Still, he said, hunting of sandhill cranes can be done sustainably, providing smaller numbers are taken. It really is a question of whether Tennesseans want to use the sandhill cranes for hunting, he said.
"This is a social decision," Barzen said.
When the commission delayed a decision in 2011, 72 percent of the public comments TWRA received opposed a sandhill crane hunt. The agency is accepting another round of comments until Aug. 10.
To help determine public support this year, the TWRA hired a public opinion research firm to conduct a detailed survey.
According to the survey, Tennesseans overwhelmingly - 84 percent - support legal hunting. When asked about sandhill cranes, the attitude takes a dramatic turn: 62 percent of Tennessee's general population opposes hunting the birds.
By comparison, hunters appear split on the issue, with 42 percent in favor of a sandhill crane hunt and 35 percent opposed.
But the survey also showed many people lack extensive knowledge of sandhill cranes. Some confuse them with great blue herons.
"I think the message here is that you are dealing with emotional issues," said Mark Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, the Harrisonburg, Va.-based company that conducted the survey. The company specializes in public opinion on natural resources.
Welton, a wildlife biologist and the Ornithological Society representative, said the survey shows that TWRA should not conduct a hunt.
"The impact is not going to be on the population of the cranes. The impact is going to be on the agency," she told the commission. "With 60 percent of the residents of Tennessee opposed to a crane hunt, that is not going to put the agency in a good light."
Welton said bird watching and hunting generally do not conflict. But she said that's not the case with sandhill cranes.
"The numbers of cranes are increasing, but just because you can hunt a species and not impact its population doesn't mean you should," she said.
Butler, with the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, said the survey showed that people believe both watching and hunting can coexist.
"The tent is big enough," said Butler, a waterfowl biologist by training. "We can both enjoy our pastimes."
The state's Fish and Wildlife Commission is likely to support the hunting proposal, Chairman Jeff McMillin said.
"I see why people are passionate about it," McMillin said. "If the resource can stand it and we can come to a common agreement, then in my heart a hunting season is appropriate. I can't see how the agency will suffer from it."