Don't rush vote on hunting cranes

Kentucky's environment has no better friends than the hunters and anglers whose license fees have saved natural habitat and restored even non-game species, such as the osprey, to the state.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources employs biologists who guide decisions about wildlife management.

But thoughtful study and public input are being lost in the department's rush to make Kentucky the first in the East to allow the hunting of sandhill cranes.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission, which will consider the proposal Friday, should put the brakes on a plan that tarnishes the department's image and makes no sense economically.

The sandhill crane population has rebounded dramatically since the birds were nearly harvested to extinction 100 years ago. Sandhills are the most numerous cranes. As their winter nesting grounds have moved northward, large numbers have begun stopping in Kentucky, especially at Barren River State Park.

Because most sandhill chicks in the Upper Midwest don't survive to fledge, Kentucky's proposed hunt of 400 cranes "could consume a substantial portion of the productivity of the region's breeding crane population," according to an analysis by the International Crane Foundation, which neither endorses nor opposes hunting.

Not enough is known to predict the effect of a Kentucky hunt on the eastern population of sandhill cranes because no population modeling studies have been done, the foundation says.

In addition to the 400 cranes that would be harvested, another 80 could be shot and never retrieved. It's possible the loss of 480 cranes in Kentucky, though a small part of the total population, could have a big effect by decimating a particular nesting area to the north, especially in Ohio which considers sandhill cranes endangered.

Interestingly, Ohio's fish and wildlife agency is using money from the sale of Ohio Legacy Wildlife Stamps to track the sandhill migration, as well as to preserve wetlands, publish wildlife ID guides and support other conservation activities.

The $15 stamps are sold to the burgeoning market of non-hunters who travel to watch birds and wildlife and are eager to support conservation by putting the wildlife stamps on their kayaks, binoculars and key rings.

As the number of licensed hunters continues to decline, tapping the wallets of nature-loving non-hunters is one way for fish and wildlife agencies to make up for the loss of hunting revenue.

Kentucky's commission should ask itself what kind of message we'd be sending that potentially lucrative audience by hosting a sandhill crane hunt.

Another economic consideration is the cost of this hunt to the agency at a time when resources are thin.

The commission should not be duped by what appears to be a grass-roots swell of support that's really just astroturf manufactured to gin up the appearance of support for a hunt that many in the sporting community find troubling.

Finally, the commission should not approve this hunt without first holding public hearings.