Sandhill Crane Season Will Be A Learning Experience For Kentucky Hunters

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Kentucky's sandhill crane hunting season, which opens Dec. 17, will be the first modern-day opportunity in the state to hunt these migratory birds.

A total of 332 hunters, 96 percent of whom are Kentucky residents, were selected by lottery drawing to participate in this inaugural season.

Hunters are busy making last-minute preparations, deciding where to hunt, assembling decoys, building blinds and getting other gear ready.

Hunters with experience in waterfowl hunting will have their skills tested at calling and decoying birds. Decoying sandhill cranes into gun range is considered the ultimate challenge of migratory bird hunting as sandhill cranes are extremely wary, with keen eyesight and an ability to spot unnatural looking decoy spreads.

The daily behavior of sandhill cranes is similar to Canada geese. They like to roost and loaf in shallow water and on mudflats, and feed in agricultural fields.

With any new hunting opportunity there's a learning curve.

"We've just been hunting elk in Kentucky since 2001 and black bears since 2009," said Jon Gassett, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "It takes a while for hunters to figure where to go, and the most effective hunting strategy."

Kentucky's two-day bear season, held in parts of Pike, Letcher and Harlan counties in early December, is the best example. "Interest has increased since hunters have had success at finding and harvesting bears," said Karen Waldrop, director of wildlife for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.

The sandhill crane is a transient visitor to Kentucky whose numbers have increased dramatically since the 1970s. A recent count of the eastern population numbered about 72,000 birds.

There are several distinct populations of sandhill cranes in the U.S., three of which are already being hunted. The largest, the mid-continent population of sandhill cranes, which breeds in Canada and winters in Texas, has been hunted since 1961. Last season, 13 states in the western U.S. and three Canadian provinces had sandhill crane hunting seasons.

Kentucky's sandhill crane season will continue through Jan. 15, 2012, or until hunters take 400 cranes, whichever comes first.

Successful applicants are required to complete and pass an online identification exam before receiving a permit. Each permitted hunter may take up to two sandhill cranes. Hunters must use the department's Telecheck system to register each crane on the day the bird is taken.

Sandhill cranes migrate through Kentucky twice a year along a corridor bounded roughly by Henderson in the west and Lexington in the east. In fall, the birds that stop over in Kentucky are migrating southward to their wintering grounds in southern Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

"Kentucky is a return stop on the sandhill crane's migration back to its breeding grounds," said Rocky Pritchert, migratory bird program coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. "Hunting activity in December and early January will not affect wildlife viewing opportunities on Barren River Lake in early February, when the largest number of birds stop over in Kentucky."

Biologists believe sandhill cranes congregate at Barren River Lake because thousands of acres of mudflats are exposed at winter pool. Major roost areas of Barren River Lake have been closed by regulation to sandhill crane hunting, in an effort to maximize wildlife viewing opportunities.

Dates and bag limits for all migratory bird hunting seasons are reviewed by the flyway councils and approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.