As part of my effort to keep concerned wildlife enthusiasts informed about the proposal to hunt Eastern Flyway sandhill cranes, it is my duty to tell you that there’s another vote coming up. This time, it’s the full commission– nine members of the Kentucky Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources—who will get together on June 3, 2011, to vote on whether to open season on Sandhill Cranes in Kentucky. Odd as it may seem to those of us who abhor the thought of shooting a crane, there are several Commission members who seem to believe that being the first Eastern Flyway state to institute a crane season would be a feather in Kentucky’s cap. A big, long, gray feather.

photo by Cyndi Routledge

KDFW Commissioner Jon Gassett replies to his mail, I’ll commend him for that. The second paragraph of a recent letter from Dr. Gassett, replying to a letter questioning the hunt, opens thus:

Sandhill cranes are considered to be one of the best tasting of all migratory birds. Their slow wing beat keeps the breast meat from being as dark and strong flavored as many other migratory birds. Hunters frequently refer to them as “Rib-eye in the Sky” due to the excellent taste.

On Dr. Gassett’s answering machine, which someone calling to protest the hunt is likely to encounter, is a similar message about the quality of crane meat. Well, fire up my grill.

Also from his letter: “They have been hunted for more than 50 years in the United States, and all three populations which have been hunted are currently at population highs. More than 10,000 people hunt cranes in North America each year.

photo by Cyndi Routledge

Dr. Gassett, 30,000 people come to one wildlife area in Indiana ( Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area) each year just to watch these big gray birds. That’s about a person for every crane: high ecotourism return, by any measure. 15,000 people flock to the Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney, Nebraska, each spring, from every state and 46 different countries. They pump $10 million into the economy of that little town—a town with tumbleweeds rolling across its main drag—every spring. Nine thousand pour into tiny Socorro, New Mexico, each November for Bosque del Apache’s Festival of the Cranes.

Everywhere cranes gather, from New Mexico to Indiana to Tennessee, people come to watch them. Cranes, with their purring calls and lanky angular forms, stir peoples’ souls. People who like to watch cranes don’t like to see them shot for sport or food. The big gray feather in Kentucky’s cap, to my thinking, is more like a big old hole, shot right through the crown. Pushing a hunt on a touchstone species like the Sandhill Crane at a time when wildlife watching is exploding and hunting is declining is an oddly divisive thing to do. What’s the necessity of hunting cranes? A Kentucky DWR biologist told me that the Kentucky hunt has “nothing to do with crop depredation, nothing to do with crane overpopulation. Hunting should never be about that.” Rather, he said it was entirely about giving hunters the chance to hunt cranes.

photo by Vickie Henderson

What about just leaving them alone?

One of the interesting statistics that came out of neighboring Tennessee’s crane hunting controversy is that Tennessee has marked an 81% increase in wildlife watchers over the past decade, while its hunters declined 25%. “To start a hunting season on these birds would send a confusing message to the public and possibly damage the image of the agency,” said Melinda Welton, the Tennessee Ornithological Society’s spokesperson, in a public meeting, referencing the hugely successful crane festival the TWRC and TOS hold at Hiwassee NWR every year. Commissioner Gassett, can it really be worth the rancor of thousands of Kentucky’s wildlife watchers to grant 400 hunters the opportunity to shoot them? The shooting starts in December 2011, unless we can turn the tide. And remember—your letters won the cranes a two-year stay of execution in Tennessee. Nothing is a done deal, no matter how stacked the cards may look.

The full commission meets June 3, 2011. If you haven’t written yet, or even if you have, please make your views known. Let Commissioner Gassett know that describing this long-lived, ancient and unutterably magnificent bird as “Ribeye in the Sky” doesn’t quite work for you.  That there are higher uses for a sandhill crane.


Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife

Jon Gassett, Commissioner

One Sportsman’s Lane

Frankfort, Kentucky 40601

Email: with a cc to


Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ultimate jurisdiction over state hunting seasons, please consider writing


The Honorable Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior

Department of the Interior

1849 C. Street, N.W.

Mail Stop 7060 Washington, D.C. 20240


Rowan W. Gould

Secretary, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

1849 C Street NW

Washington, DC 20240


As always, thank you, gentle readers, for your support, your passion, and your time.

Written by Julie
Julie Zickefoose is an artist, naturalist and writer specializing in natural history. Her writing is based on keen observation of animal and human behavior, and she likes to interweave solid natural history information with larger philosophical themes to challenge and inspire the reader. Julie contributes three-minute natural history commentaries to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She illustrates her books and magazine articles with her own sketches and watercolor paintings. Letters from Eden (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) will soon be followed by a memoir about the birds she has raised, healed, studied and followed throughout her life. She lives at Indigo Hill, an 80-acre wildlife sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio with her husband, Bill Thompson III, their children Phoebe and Liam, and their Boston terrier, Chet Baker.