Sandhill cranes are generally gray in color, have red foreheads, white cheeks and long, dark, pointed bills. Males weigh about 10 pounds and the average weight of females is about 9 pounds.
Express illustration by Kristen Kaiser
Due to a continued low three-year-average count of sandhill cranes in Idaho, the Department of Fish and Game is proposing to reduce the number of tags available for hunting the birds.
The birds can be hunted in only six counties, in the southeastern part of the state where the population is fairly robust.
Jeff Knetter, the department’s upland game and migratory bird program manager, said there are about 5,000 sandhill cranes in those counties. He said the birds there make up about 25 percent of the entire Rocky Mountain population, which winters primarily in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico.
Knetter said two smaller populations of cranes that nest in southwestern Idaho and winter in southern California and Arizona are protected from hunting. He said cranes seen in the Sawtooth Valley are believed to be part of the Rocky Mountain population.
The Pacific Flyway Council, which has representatives from wildlife agencies in each state west of the Continental Divide, allocates to each state the number of cranes that can be killed by hunters each season. For the 2014 season, the council has allocated Idaho a harvest of 120 cranes.
According to the Department of Fish and Game, since 2009 when sandhill crane tags were first made available, the harvest per tag purchased has averaged 48 percent. To meet the allocation, Fish and Game is therefore proposing to reduce the number of tags available to 240, down from 275 in 2013. It also proposes to eliminate the Bonneville County hunt (where there were only five tags available in 2013) and reduce the season limit to two birds. The proposed season is Sept. 1-15.
The department is seeking public comment on its proposals. Comments can be submitted through July 4 at fishandgame.idaho.gov/content/webform/comment-2014-sandhill-crane-season-proposals. A summary of the comments will be presented to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission at its July 10 meeting in Salmon, when the commission will consider the proposed 2014 season.
According to the department, this is the second consecutive year that Idaho’s allocation has been reduced, and the lowest since 1996.
The reduction is due to a decline in the most recent three-year average of cranes counted during an annual survey done as the cranes are gathering to begin their southern migration in early September. Knetter said that even though the count was up in 2013 from the two previous years, the three-year average remains low due to especially low counts in 2011 and 2012.
Nationwide, hunting had reduced sandhill crane populations to very low numbers by the mid-20th century, but protection has allowed the birds to rebound considerably since then. Knetter said a hunting season was established in Western states in 1996 and 1997 due to complaints from farmers of crop depredation.
John Thompson, public relations director with the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, said crop damage by sandhill cranes is not widespread, but he has heard of problems in Caribou County, where there are many sweet-potato farms.
“Farmers there have told me the cranes will walk down a row in the field and pick a hole in every one of them,” he said.
Mark Delwiche, president of the Snake River Audubon Society, said the society itself has not taken a position on the crane hunt, but individual members have expressed opposition to it.
“They’re graceful, elegant birds,” he said. “Why hunt them? It wouldn’t surprise me to hear it, but I’m unaware of any damage that sandhill cranes cause. There aren’t huge flocks of them—you see them in small numbers.”
However, Delwiche said he would defer to the Department of Fish and Game’s scientific judgment on the subject.
“If they say it’s time for a hunt, OK,” he said.
Knetter said the Pacific Flyway Council’s goal is to maintain a Rocky Mountain crane population of between 17,000 and 22,000. He said the few hunting tags issued have little effect on that.
“A very, very small percentage of the population is being harvested,” he said. “I think habitat loss is the bigger issue. Sandhill cranes are associated with wetlands—that’s where they breed, and all over the West, water is becoming more scarce. As water continues to be a challenge and development increases, these birds have a smaller and smaller area to work with.”
Greg Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org