Environment

Kentucky residents have until the end of the month to voice opposition to the increased hunting of migrating sandhill cranes — the so-called “rib-eyes of the skies.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved changes allowing hunters to harvest more of the birds, but the decision isn’t final until it goes before a legislative subcommittee later this summer.

Migrating sandhill cranes are prized in Kentucky for two reasons.

For bird watchers, it’s the majesty. They have bright red foreheads, wing spans up to seven feet and perform elaborate courtship dances.

But for hunters, it’s the flavor.

New rules approved by U.S. Fish and Wildlife have a little something for both kinds of bird enthusiasts.

The new rules will let hunters harvest up to 70 percent more sandhill cranes this year, said Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Migratory Bird Program Coordinator John Brunjes.

“We’re trying to provide a little bit of hunting in a way that doesn’t negatively impact that population,” he said.

In theory, that means hunters could bag as many as 1,354 sandhill cranes. But typically, Kentucky hunters only catch a fraction of the tags issued because the birds are notoriously hard to hunt.

The demand for hunting sandhill cranes has increased every year since the program started in 2011. In that same time, the migratory population has nearly doubled to about 100,000 cranes.

The rules also carve out more than 800 acres of protected mud flats on Green River Lake for roosting cranes.

Opposition seems to have dwindled in recent years. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has received few letters commenting on the rule changes.

“I’ve gotten three, compared to the first time around I got five or 6,000.” Brunjes said.

Tony Brusate, president of the Central Kentucky Audubon Society, said he’s reviewed the federal data and agrees the sandhill crane population has rebounded enough that increased hunting is unlikely to hurt the birds.

However, he noted that that increased hunting might impact protected species like the whooping crane, which often coexist with sandhill cranes.

Brusate said he’d prefer to see the state celebrating the cranes.

“Birding ecotourism is a financial driver in many communities, it really needs to be pushed,” he said. “It seems that we are really missing the chance to celebrate these birds, and instead running into the woods within guns.”

Public comments on the proposed changes close at the end of the month. A legislative subcommittee will review the changes later this summer.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.