FRANKFORT — Kentucky sportsmen could be hunting sandhill cranes by Christmas.
The Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission on Friday unanimously approved a Dec. 17 to Jan. 15 hunting season for cranes, making Kentucky the first state east of the Mississippi River to do so. Thirteen western states allow hunting of sandhill cranes.
The hunting season also must be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is expected to consider the issue at a meeting later this month and make a final ruling in August.
Friday's vote came after a sometimes contentious meeting that lasted nearly five hours. Dozens of people voiced opposition and support for the new hunting season.
Those who opposed the hunt include the state's Audubon societies, the Kentucky Coalition for Sandhill Cranes and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance. The League of Kentucky Sportsmen and several hunters spoke in favor of the proposal.
Sandhill cranes, which often have a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet, have not been hunted in Kentucky and most of the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard since the early 1900s. 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.
Karen Waldrop, director of wildlife for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, told the commission that sandhill crane populations have rebounded since reaching near extinction in the early 1900s because of overhunting.
Conservative estimates say there are about 60,000 sandhill cranes in the eastern population, which includes much of the Midwest and Eastern United States.
"They are the most numerous of all crane species," Waldrop said.
Up to 400 birds could be killed during the hunting season, with a limit of two tags per person.
Waldrop said the hunt is expected to reduce the population of sandhill cranes in Kentucky by less than 1 percent.
"We will still see population growth," Waldrop said.
Many who were opposed to the hunting season said more research is needed on the sandhill crane population and migratory patterns.
Tennessee considered a similar hunting season earlier this year but ultimately voted to table the measure so it could be studied, many bird watchers and ornithologists told the commission. Others questioned whether the sand hill crane population needed to be managed through hunting.
Others were concerned that the public has not had enough input. The issue first surfaced publicly in early May. Friday was just the second meeting where the issue has been publicly addressed, opponents said.
Most people oppose hunting cranes, contended Jim Daniel of Frankfort.
"This is about as popular as doing away with Medicare," Daniel said. "This bird is special ... it is majestic."
Daniels and others argued that hunting the bird will alienate the general public instead of attract new hunters, which is one of the goals of the commission.
The state Fish and Wildlife Department is funded by licenses and fees paid by sportsmen or federal grants. But the number of hunters in Kentucky is on the decline.
Many hunters countered that making sandhill cranes a hunted bird gives those animals value. There will be more money spent on land conservation to protect the cranes' habitat, said Mark Nethery, vice president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen.
"It's been proven with elk," Nethery said.
Many commissioners said they appreciated the input but were confident that hunting sandhill cranes would not diminish the population or the opportunities to view them.
Commissioner Stephen Glenn told the group shortly before the unanimous vote that the commission could reverse course and do away with the hunting season if the hunt is not successful or if there is a decline in the population.
"We are not afraid to say that we made a mistake," Glenn said.