By Beth Musgrave
FRANKFORT — Kentucky’s 20,000 bird hunters will have the opportunity to kill sandhill cranes before years’ end after a proposed hunt cleared its final substantial hurdle on Tuesday.
Over the objections of environmentalists and bird enthusiasts, the state legislature’s Administrative Regulation and Review Subcommittee approved a regulation Tuesday that would make Kentucky the first state east of the Mississippi to allow hunting of sandhill cranes. Thirteen western states allow hunting of the birds, which often have a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet.
The regulation must still go to two other state legislative committees in early November, but the controversial measure is expected to meet no opposition.
That means Kentucky hunters have until Nov. 30 to apply for one of 400 permit for the hunt that begins Dec. 15 and lasts 30 days or until 400 cranes have been harvested.
Sandhill cranes have not been hunted in Kentucky and most of the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard since the early 1900s, when the population dwindled because of over-hunting. Popular crane viewing spots include Barren River Lake in Western Kentucky and Cecilia in Hardin County. Cranes are typically hunted for sport and for their meat.
Supporters of the hunt say the sandhill crane population — which some estimates say number 60,000 in the Eastern flyway — could easily sustain a hunt of less than 400 cranes per year.
“Sandhill cranes are not endangered. They are the most populous crane species in the world,” said Mark Nethery, president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen, who testified in support of the measure.
Nethery said similar game organizations in 22 states also support the hunt. He and other sportsmen told the committee that a species thrives once it comes under a state and federal management plan.
But environmentalists and bird enthusiasts questioned why the state was pushing the hunt and said more research is needed on the state’s sandhill crane population.
Carol Besse of the Kentucky Ornithological Society said the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has not allowed enough public input into the plan.
By the time the hunt proposal became public, those who opposed it only had one opportunity at a June meeting to voice their concerns. The Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to approve the proposal that same day, she said.
“It’s just a stacked deck” Besse said. “Kentucky citizens haven’t had a chance … I believe this regulation is flawed public policy.”
James Daniel, a hunter and Frankfort land owner, told legislators he objected to the “dishonest way in which the Department of Fish and Wildlife has ginned up this issue as an attack on hunting.”
Daniel said bird watching is one of the most popular outdoor activities. Killing a species of bird that people love to view will do the state harm, he said.
“More people watch birds than play golf,” Daniel said.
Jon Gassett, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the committee on Tuesday that the department received hundreds of emails from the Humane Society of the United States, which is against hunting.
“As far as the slant or bias toward hunting and fishing, I will plead guilty as charged as we are a hunting and fishing agency,” Gassett said.
Gassett said the agency has met with representatives from the Kentucky Ornithological Society to address some of their concerns and have held public meetings to take comment on the regulation, which is required under the statute.
Gassett said hunters will be required to take a species identification test prior to receiving their license. That test should alleviate concerns that hunters could mistake and shoot a whooping crane instead of a sandhill crane.
The hunt is experimental and it will be reviewed every year, he said. Hunters will be required to take a post-season survey to help the department assess if there are issues. If problems arise, the department can change the hunt or eliminate it all together, Gassett said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has already approved the hunt.
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