As thousands admire the sandhill cranes in the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge during the annual viewing festival, the decision gets nearer on whether to allow hunting of the 4-foot-tall birds.
Thursday is the deadline to submit comments on a proposed sandhill crane hunting season before the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission votes on Friday, said Dan Hicks, TWRA spokesman.
If approved, it would be the first time that sandhill crane hunting would be allowed in Tennessee. Eleven states and three Canadian provinces have sandhill seasons, according to the state agency.
The plan has been approved by the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway Council, which oversees the migratory waterfowl's flyway. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has allowed 6,000 hunting permits to be available in the Tennessee flyway.
It all boils down to Friday's vote, Hicks said.
Out of the 6,000 permits allowed, Tennessee proposes to issue up to 733 permits -- each worth three cranes, or nearly 2,200 total -- through a drawing, Hicks said. Kentucky asked for 800 permits, he added.
If approved, the hunting season will start in late December and run through January, or during the late duck season, Hicks said.
So far, the agency has received more than 320 letters and e-mails about the proposal, said Mary Allen with the Wildlife Division of the TWRA. More opposed hunting sandhills than support it, she said.
TWRA said there are plenty of birds in the Eastern population of sandhill cranes.
* By mail to: Sandhill Crane Comments, TWRA, Wildlife Management Division, P.O. 40747, Nashville, TN 37204
* E-mail: TWRA.Comment@tn.gov. Please include "Sandhill Crane Comments" on the subject line of e-mailed submissions.
READ THE HUNTING PROPOSAL
* TWRA committee meetings will begin at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Ray Bell Building in the Ellington Agricultural Center in Nashville. The commission meeting will start at 9 a.m. Friday. The public is invited.
"In 1969, we recorded about 20 of those sandhill cranes at the Hiwassee refuge. Last year in February, we counted 48,000 sandhill cranes," Hicks said.
Hunting opponents worry about the accidental shooting of a whooping crane -- an endangered species -- especially after three whooping cranes were shot dead last month in South Georgia.
"[It's] a huge tragedy, and it shows why I'm against the hunting of sandhill cranes in Tennessee," said Doug Geren, a Cleveland, Tenn., resident and longtime birdwatcher.
But Hicks said waterfowl hunters should be able to tell the difference between the white whooping crane and the gray sandhill crane.
"I know how hard it is to identify waterfowl when it's flying," he said. "[But when] a whooping crane is compared to a sandhill crane, it's like looking at a Ping-Pong ball in a coal bucket."
The TWRA website says the harvest strategy includes steps to minimize danger to whooping cranes, such as identification information.
Opponents also charge that TWRA wants to make money off hunting permits, but Hicks said 80 percent to 90 percent of waterfowl hunters already have annual or even lifetime sportsman licenses.
He said if hunting is approved, the refuge will be off-limits and hunters will need permission from private landowners to go after the birds.
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