Pfitzer: Crane hunt obscures big gains

Pfitzer: Crane hunt obscures big gains

September 8th, 2013 by By Jim Pfitzer in Opinion Columns

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