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Over 15,000 Sandhill Cranes spend the winter at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge on the Tennessee River in this file photo.


What: The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission will meet to set the upcoming waterfowl hunting season, vote on the sandhill crane hunt and hear other nonavian issues.

When: 1 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Where: At the Holiday Inn Knoxville West at Cedar Bluff

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Tennessee wildlife authorities will decide this week whether sandhill cranes will be in hunters' sights this year, but conservationists say there are plenty of other birds for sportsmen to shoot.

The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission will convene in Knoxville on Thursday to set the upcoming waterfowl hunting season and decide whether up to 2,300 sandhill cranes will be included.

Dan Hicks, spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency -- which is bringing the proposal to allow crane hunting in several areas around the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs and Rhea counties -- said data show the cranes are overpopulating the refuge and out-competing other waterfowl.

The wildlife commission deferred a similar proposal two years ago because commissioners wanted more information. Now the information is in, Hicks said.

"This was originally a proposal that came to the commission from waterfowl hunters who had seen the number of sandhill cranes increase, with the number of ducks and geese decline," Hicks said.

In 1969, Hicks said, there were six to eight sandhill cranes migrating through Hamilton County. Recent TWRA data shows more than 70,000 sandhill cranes in the area.

"Over the last two decades the number of cranes has increased so much they out-compete the ducks and geese," Hicks said.

Sandhill cranes migrate annually from the Great Lakes area in Wisconsin and Michigan to central Florida. The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is traditionally a halfway point for the birds. Their main food sources are grain and corn, Hicks said.

Conservationists, including former President Jimmy Carter and researcher Jane Goodall, have recently come out against the crane hunt.

They have concerns that hunters will confuse young whooping cranes, which are endangered, with the sandhills.

Hicks countered that hunters will be required to take a crane identification class -- and the two species are easy to differentiate.

"They are cousins of the whooping cranes but a little larger. Whooping cranes are white as snow, and the sandhill crane is a grayish color with a rusty color around the base," Hicks said. "When you see two of them go, it's like telling the difference between a pingpong ball and a [piece of] coal."

That may be true of mature cranes, but Axel Ringe, biodiversity chairman of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, says young whoopers are harder to distinguish within a flock of sandhills. In addition, the sandhill populations were not always so robust. The Hiwassee refuge was created in large part to protect them, he said.

"The effort has been successful enough that Tennessee had developed a festival to celebrate the arrival of these birds every winter, and now they want to hunt them," Ringe said. "I don't think that just because the population has finally recovered to a point where technically, yes, they could withstand a hunting season, that doesn't mean we have to go out and hunt them."

Ken Dubke, of Signal Mountain, has watched sandhill cranes for 40 years and helped organize the annual sandhill crane festival near the refuge. He said he plans to go to the meeting in Knoxville with fellow birdwatcher Doug Geren to oppose the hunt.

He's not against hunting. And he said he doesn't deny that cranes could likely be hunted without significant danger to the population. But he'd rather see the state make money on the deal.

"We are the easiest accessible place for John Q. Public to see the cranes in the wintertime," Dubke said. "More money can be made by people coming to watch the birds than shooting at them. There's more money that can be made with tourism, and we've proved it."

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or at