Friday, April 25, 2014 · 12:04 a.m.
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Thousands of sandhill cranes migrate through our area each winter, attracting thousands of birdwatchers to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Contributed)

Tennessee wildlife officials are hoping a compromise recommendation will quell some of the controversy on the contentious debate expected Friday, as the 13-member Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission votes on whether to allow hunting of sandhill cranes in Tennessee.

However, opponents to the hunting season may not be in a compromising mood.

Daryl Ratajczak, chief of wildlife for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, has provided the wildlife commission—the governing body over Tennessee wildlife regulations—with a proposal for a sandhill crane hunting season that suggests the state "not utilize the full guidelines recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

David Watson, a partner with the Mountain View Auto Group, has been appointed the newest Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission member. His first meeting will likely be highly controversial. (Photo: Contributed)

The USFWS has ultimate authority over all migratory species and provides guidelines for states on all migratory bird hunting regulations. The individual states can choose to be even more restrictive than the federal guidelines, if they wish. That's what Ratajczak and his peers are suggesting.

The agency will recommend a season length about half of what could be allowed by the USFWS. Rather than a 60-day season, they will recommend a 35-day hunting season, running from Nov. 28 through Jan. 1.

"This will provide hunters an opportunity to take sandhill cranes that are coming into the area before most of the food sources have been depleted," Ratajczak said. "It will effectively shut down the season 17 days prior to the Sandhill Crane Festival."

Ratajczak also said he doesn't think sandhill hunting would have a significant impact on the number of cranes that use the refuge.

"Duck hunters already hunt and routinely shoot in very close proximity to the refuge, and it's always been that way," he said. "That certainly hasn't affected the sandhills so far."

He said they will also recommend issuing about half of the number of permits proposed by USFWS and reducing the shooting hours so that hunting wouldn't be allowed in low-light conditions. The agency is also suggesting that any sandhill hunters be required to pass a bird ID test before their permits will be issued. They say this will reduce the likelihood of an endangered whooping crane being accidentally mistaken for a sandhill.

Ratajczak made it clear that none of the compromise recommendations have anything to do with biology. He said all are "social concessions in an effort to demonstrate to the general public our willingness to compromise and acknowledge some of their concerns regarding this sensitive issue. They should not be construed as being recommended for biological purposes."

Ratajczak told commissioners that TWRA leaders held a conference call with the leadership of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, the primary opponents to a sandhill hunting season, to discuss the compromises.

"TOS's continued stance is that they would prefer not to have a season at all," Ratajczak told commissioners. "However, they were appreciative of our efforts to accommodate some of their concerns."

Ratajczak and others are realistic enough to know that anything short of "no sandhill crane hunting" simply won't fly with many in the anti-camp—a camp that has garnered some prestigious names. Former President Jimmy Carter, a hunter himself, wrote a letter expressing concern that a sandhill hunting season might bring inadvertent kills of endangered whooping cranes.

"I understand that your commission is contemplating opening hunting for sandhill cranes in Tennessee," Carter wrote. "It is obvious that this will make it highly likely that whooping cranes might also be killed."

Well-known wildlife researcher Dr. Jane Goodall wrote, "It is clear that the sandhills foraging and roosting in freedom during their stay in Tennessee, attracting visitors to view them and other local species, offer a good deal more all around than if hunters are permitted to kill them."

During the official public comment period, Ratajczak said the agency received a total of 1,073 comments. He said 888 of those comments were opposed to a hunting season.

Two years ago, the TFWC deferred the decision, opting to "study the issue" for two years. Now, it is decision time again. This week's wildlife commission meeting is likely to be the most well-attended in decades.

It will be a trial by fire for newly appointed commissioner David Watson from Chattanooga. This highly controversial issue and meeting will be the very first for the wildlife commission newcomer, appointed to fulfill the unexpired term of William "Chink" Brown, who was unceremoniously booted off the commission by Sen. Todd Gardenhire.

The politically astute Watson said he hasn't made up his mind on the issue and hasn't decided how he will vote. But the avid hunter and fisherman clearly makes pro-hunting noises in most of his comments.

"From emails I've gotten, there's a lot misinformation out there," Watson said. "I was surprised to learn how many other states already do hunt [sandhill] cranes."

Visitors flock to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County, Tenn., to watch the sandhill cranes that winter there. (Photo: Contributed)

For decades, TWRA has sponsored and promoted the annual Sandhill Crane Festival, attracting tens of thousands of tourists to the area to view the cranes. Understandably, many—or most—now have an emotional attachment to the majestic birds and don't want to see them hunted.

Watson said, however, that hunting and watching wildlife do not have to be mutually exclusive.

"There are other festivals being held now in these other states that are hunting sandhill cranes, and those festivals are co-existing with hunting," he said. "If hunting were voted in, there might be an initial emotional backlash, but I think it would recover."

The TFWC meeting begins Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Knoxville West, located at 304 N. Cedar Bluff Road. The voting portion of the meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Friday.

Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.

Updated @ 10:31 a.m. on 8/20/13 for clarity.
Updated @ 10:43 a.m. on 8/20/13 for clarity.

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