published Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Pfitzer: Crane hunt obscures big gains

By Jim Pfitzer

The debate in Tennessee is over. Hunters, birders, conservationists, wildlife managers, farmers, and animal lovers have all weighed in. Tennessee will be the 16th state to allow sandhill crane hunting.

This comes on the heels of a remarkable comeback for an eastern population of cranes estimated in the late 1940s by conservationist Aldo Leopold to number fewer than 100 birds. Since that time, thanks to large-scale habitat restoration and a ban on hunting, numbers have swelled to over 72,000 in the Eastern flyway.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Leopold's shack on the Wisconsin River. I stood at the door of an old chicken coop-converted-to-shack on the land that inspired much of Leopold's writing. It was November, and chilly outside. I had just finished stacking firewood on the hearth for the night when I experienced something Leopold never did on his own property.

Leopold described the bugles of approaching sandhill cranes as a "tinkling of little bells fall(ing) soft upon the listening land," followed by a pack of baying hounds and hunting horns, and finally "a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries." In a half hour, I was sitting on the bank of the river behind the shack looking at nearly 2000 cranes covering every sandbar in both directions until the river bent out of sight.

At the time of his death in 1948, Leopold was certain that sandhill cranes would soon be extinct. Next year, we will hunt them. Clearly, something big happened over the ensuing 65 years. Yet, in the arguments for and against a crane hunting season, rarely do I hear that story mentioned. We came together to save the sandhill cranes, and that ought to be celebrated.

Earlier this year, I stood with 50 or so other crane fans behind a fence near where the Hiwassee River flows into the Tennessee. Most of us held binoculars, some perched behind spotting scopes. All of us felt the bugling chorus. A couple hundred yards away, on a rolling hill across a small slough, one bird stood out. Amidst a sea of roan-stained grey birds, a single beacon of bright white hopped and dipped, disappearing for a moment, then reappearing. A spotting scope revealed that dot to be a majestic five-feet-tall white bird. A single Whooping crane.

Today there are only around 100 whooping cranes migrating and flocking with the Eastern sandhills. That is roughly the same number of sandhills Leopold counted in this flock in 1948. At that time, there were only 15 whooping cranes. Fifteen!

After a half hour of watching and listening, we joined together at one end of the observation platform, where I recited from Leopold's essay A Marshland Elegy -- a farewell to the marsh and the cranes he so loved. Near the end of Leopold's Elegy, the writer suggests that "in the fullness of geologic time, the last crane will trumpet its farewell and spiral out of the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the baying of the phantom pack, the tinkling of little bells, and a silence never to be broken..."

I could never hunt these birds. I am one who finds them majestic, primordial. But to wage battles based on my morals vs. yours is arguing religion. So let's agree on what we can. The sandhill crane was saved by hunters, bird lovers, and scientists working together.

Let's celebrate our success with the sandhill cranes. Let's keep one another in check. And let's see to it -- hunters, birders, conservationists, wildlife managers, farmers, and animal lovers all -- that we have, one day, thousands of whooping cranes over which to debate.

Jim Pfitzer is a storyteller, actor, conservationist and hunter who loves in Chattanooga. Learn about his one-man play about Aldo Leopold and the sandhill cranes at

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librul said...

Lacking the single most important ingredient in the consideration of whether to allow the killing of cranes, i.e. NECESSITY, the moral justification falls well short. Certainly we CAN, but is it NECESSARY? Some idiot claims they taste like sirloin - well then, go buy some sirloin!

That same moral shortfall is what convicts the whole concept of recreational killing, er, "sport hunting" to its anachronistic status and makes the whole durned enterprise a stain on our national conscience. We've gotta always be killing something, don't we? I mean if we can't justify it by saying "I had to kill it because it was going to eat me" or "I had to kill it because I was starving" or "I had to kill it because it was rabid" - Well, how sad. But to say, "I killed it because the wildlife "management" industry employed captive breeding and other contrived methods to create an artificial abundance of them to justify the recreational killing of a few each year and I buy a permit to pay for it" - can anyone say that passes any minimal test of ethics or morality?

No, it's not about the comraderie of some good ol' boys sitting in a blind having a beer and eating Vienna sausages while waiting to blow something out of the sky; it's not about solitude or seeing a dramatic sunrise or taking in the sounds of nature; it's not about playing a role in maintaining the 'balance of nature'. It's about satisfying the craving to KILL something and THAT is a sickness; THAT is a disease of the human mind; THAT is something you will never hear discussed in any debate about dealing death to wildlife; because there are those who use the same craven justification when atrocities against our own species occur in schoolhouses and war zones around the world. Humans dominate the planet, not becasue they have been more prolific that other species, but because they have always been able to use their 'intelligence' to contrive more effective means to kill things - you know, back when it was NECESSARY.

September 8, 2013 at 9:25 a.m.
aae1049 said...


Absolutely, this go along to get along is a bunch of BS. There is no reason to kill the Sand Hill Carnes. TWRA does not have a clue on the crane count, or on any migratory birds. I challenge TWRA to show us their counts on each day they collected data. This over population notion TWRA presents to allow a pack of bubus to shoot majestic wildlife is absurd. Honestly, this agency is not about wildlife, they are about politics.

The author of this op ed just presents a backward notion that we should all appease a group that just wants to kill, to kill. no thanks. They are wrong.

September 8, 2013 at 11:44 p.m.
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