FRANKFORT — Kentucky's 20,000 bird hunters will have the opportunity to kill sandhill cranes this year.
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 sand hill cranes. Thirteen western states allow hunting of the birds, which can have a wingspan of six to eight feet.
The regulation still must 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 permits for the hunt, which would begin Dec. 15 and last 30 days, or until 400 cranes have been killed.
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 their meat.
Supporters of the hunt say the sandhill crane population — which some estimates say is 60,000 in the Eastern flyway — could easily sustain a hunt of fewer than 400 cranes a 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 was needed on the state's sandhill crane population.
Carol Besse of the Kentucky Ornithological Society said the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife had not allowed enough public input into the plan.
By the time the hunt proposal became public, those who opposed it had only 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 landowner, 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 was 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 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.
He said the agency had met with representatives of the Kentucky Ornithological Society to address some of its concerns and held public meetings to take comment on the regulation, which is required under the statute.
Gassett said hunters would be required to take a species identification test before receiving a license. That test should alleviate concerns that hunters mistakenly could shoot a whooping crane instead of a sandhill crane.
The hunt is experimental and will be reviewed every year, Gassett said. Hunters will be required to take a survey after the season to help the department assess whether there are issues. If problems arise, the department can change the hunt or eliminate it, Gassett said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has approved the hunt.