Audubon of Kansas Urges KDWP&T Commission to Keep Safeguards for Whooping Cranes

April 24, 2012

News, Whooping Cranes

Audubon of Kansas (AOK) is asking Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWP&T) Commissioners this week to maintain existing safeguards designed to protect federally endangered Whooping Cranes during their migratory stopovers (and often extended stays) in Kansas.

Sandhill Cranes at Sunset © Ron Klataske

According to Ron Klataske, AOK Executive Director, “The most immediate and important thing that the KDWP&T Commission can do at this time is to reject the proposal being forwarded by KDWP&T staff suggesting that the safeguards implemented by the Commission in 2005 be discarded.”

Following the shooting of a group of three Whooping Cranes at sunrise in early November 2004, the Commission moved the daily opening for the legal shooting of Sandhill Cranes to a half hour after sunrise.  The hunters who shot the birds told investigators that they mistook the identity of the three birds that approached from the east just after sunrise.  They were shooting silhouettes!  It is very difficult for anyone to distinguish Whooping Cranes from Sandhill Cranes in under challenging light conditions, and the birds sometimes fly together in the same flocks.

In total disregard for the birds or the violation, the party of seven hunters continued hunting after dropping two of the whoopers, and left later that day without reporting the downed and wounded Whooping Cranes. Landowners reported the injured Whooping Cranes in early afternoon.  The two severely wounded birds were captured. Attempts were made at the KSU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and the wildlife research center at Patuxent, MD to keep them alive, but both died.  The third had flown back to the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.  It didn’t fly for a week, but the ultimate fate of that bird was never determined.  It may have been unable to meet the arduous challenges of migration and survival in the wild and perished later from wounds–as most injured wildlife do.

Illegal shooting of Whooping Cranes is damaging to more than this endangered species

The shooting was an unfortunate tragedy for the gallant century-long effort by many people and organizations to protect and recover this iconic endangered species.  The migratory population dropped to sixteen birds in 1942 and recovery from the brink of extinction has been slow and expensive over the past 70 years (see the USGS publication on Whooping Cranes). A survey in their primary wintering area associated with the Aransas NWR on the coast of Texas estimated the numbers there in February of this year at 245 within the survey area. The shooting was also an unfortunate reflection on the KDWP for not having closed the area to Sandhill Crane shooting.  Closure is provided in the “Contingency Plan for Federal-State Cooperative Protection of Whooping Cranes” developed for the flyway.  Likewise, the agency’s failure to implement delayed morning shooting hours for Sandhill Crane hunting in Kansas is regarded by AOK as setting the stage for the accidental shootings of Whooping Cranges.  Audubon of Kansas and other conservation organizations requested delayed shooting hours when Sandhill Crane hunting seasons were initiated in the state in 1993.  The carelessness of the shooters in 2004 cast a shadow over the more honorable ethics of most hunters, as well.

Whooping Cranes on Kansas River © Ron Klataske

Unfortunately, KDWP&T is now proposing that Sandhill Crane shooting be allowed from “sunrise to sunset.”  That proposal is on the Commission agenda for the upcoming meeting Thursday afternoon, April 26 at the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita.

“The two proposed changes in Sandhill Crane hunting regulations that should not be changed,” according to an Audubon of Kansas letter mailed to commissions, “are (1) opening of shooting hours at a half hour after sunrise, and (2) closing of daily shooting hours for Sandhill Cranes at 2 p.m.  Both provisions are important for both Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes.”

There are no compelling reasons why shooting should start at sunrise or continue up to sunset when it is difficult to distinguish Sandhill Cranes from Whooping Cranes.  In many instances the birds appear as silhouettes.  In addition to a bright setting or rising sun, sometimes it is foggy, dark and gray with heavy clouds and/or raining in a way that may further diminish the ability of a shooter to distinguish slight differences between birds.  Mistakes happen.  Mistakenly shooting a hen pheasant rather than a rooster is a violation, but that occasional mistake does not have significant biological significance.  Waterfowl regulations have been modified several times in recent decades in recognition of the fact that many hunters cannot always distinguish one duck species from certain others-at least not with the birds in flight and under varying light and weather conditions.

Regulatory provisions are needed for safety of Whooping Cranes, just as they have been for the safety of other hunters. The department would no longer be inclined to open the deer firearms season without requiring hunters to wear blaze orange as a safety precaution.  Expecting all hunters to be able to distinguish white or rusty juvenile Whooping Cranes from gray Sandhill Cranes at sunrise or sunset is unrealistic, and undermines the conservation credibility of the KDWP&T and the agency’s commitment to protection of endangered species. Radio advertisements asking folks to contribute state tax refunds to the Chickadee Checkoff program to benefit nongame and endangered species will ring hollow for some wildlife enthusiasts if these important safeguards for Whooping Cranes are discarded.

Whooping Cranes on Kansas River © Ron Klataske

Existing allowable “Shooting Hours” provides cranes with an opportunity to return to vital Kansas wetland habitats and roosting areas

The established practice of closing shooting hours on Sandhill Cranes at 2 p.m. in Kansas allows the birds to return to night-roosting areas, to drink and not be forced to continually flee from shooting directed at them (from sunrise to sunset as proposed).  This practice of giving Sandhill Canes (and Whooping Cranes that may be with them) a daylight breather (from 2 p.m. to sunset) and some late afternoon refuge at or when returning to night-roosting areas may even benefit Kansas hunters by allowing the birds to more readily remain in the state longer.  This principle of a “refuge area” has been used at many waterfowl hunting areas for ducks and geese.  However, Sandhill Cranes are very restricted by the shallow roosting areas they require and can’t simply take refuge in any nearby reservoir of open or deep water like waterfowl.  There aren’t many shallow water areas in Kansas suitable for night roosting of either Sandhill Cranes or Whooping Cranes.  Encroaching on those areas (from sunrise to sunset) with crane shooting is likely to cause unnecessary added stress to birds that must migrate thousands of miles each spring and fall, and sometimes find conditions at wintering areas stark and without sufficient food.  Numerous Whooping Cranes perished from inadequate food supplies at their wintering area along the Texas Gulf Coast several years ago.  It is important for the birds to maintain and build body weight and energy reserves during migration.

In addition to keeping shooting hours for Sandhill Cranes restricted, as during recent years, AOK’s board of trustees believe that KDWP&T officials need to utilize area closures when Whooping Cranes are present. The agency’s Briefing Paper for the Commission’s April 26 meeting states that, ”the agency remains committed to the Whooping Crane Contingency Plan, including ‘the closure of hunting areas where whooping cranes are present’.”  However, there are many instances in recent years when areas being used by one or more Whooping Cranes have not been closed to Sandhill Crane shooting.  That was certainly the case in 2004 when the Whooping Cranes were shot near the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.  Whooping Cranes were continuously present there from October 23 until November 6 when at least eighteen (18), and probably twenty-two (22) were recorded during that brief period leading up to the shooting.

At least 59 migrating Whooping Cranes utilized the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge during the total 2004 fall migration.  Providing people opportunities to see these rare and majestic birds offers Kansas a tremendous eco-tourism resource.  During this past winter a Whooping Crane spent most of the winter, along with thousands of Sandhill Cranes, in the state.  The Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area are two of the state’s top areas for wildlife viewing.  They have been designated as “wetlands of international importance” and people come from every state and throughout the country to view the impressive array of shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl that depend on these wetlands.

Audubon of Kansas wants to encourage more wildlife stakeholders to be supportive constituents of KDWP&T programs, not fewer.  The total number of hunters and the proportions of hunters in the population are dropping as many wildlife populations decline and habitat is being diminished almost everywhere in the landscape.  Hunters and non-hunters alike need to work closely together to build greater public support for wildlife programs that benefit game, nongame and endangered species alike.  Maintaining safeguards for Whooping Cranes is vital to this partnership.

Governor Brownback is hosting an Eco-Tourism Summit at the Wetlands Education Center northeast of Great Bend on Saturday afternoon, April 28.  Audubon of Kansas strongly supports the governor’s efforts to build the great potential for nature-based and agri-tourism throughout Kansas.  Reversion of the agency’s previous actions to provide safeguards for Whooping Cranes, and special stewardship considerations for Sandhill Cranes, two days before that event cannot be helpful.

However, if the Commission elects to begin a process to review Sandhill Crane hunting regulations, and will be inclusive with outreach to all stakeholders, Audubon of Kansas is willing to participate.   As the statewide membership organization has expressed before, “we do not believe that Sandhill Crane shooting should be allowed within wetlands and specifically at night-roosting sites. With that in mind, and for other compelling reasons, we believe the Cheyenne Bottoms Waterfowl Area should be closed to Sandhill Crane shooting.”

The Audubon of Kansas board of trustees met in Kansas City last Saturday and passed a resolution asking KDWP&T Commissioners to vote against any regulation changes that have the potential of undermining existing safeguards for the safe presence and passage of Whooping Cranes in Kansas.
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Photos included are of Sandhill Cranes arriving at roosts in the Platte River in Nebraska at sunset, and three photos of Whooping Cranes using the Kansas River east of Manhattan in spring 2009.

Photos by Ron Klataske

Additional Information 

We are providing a PDF version of an article on the Whooping Crane shooting that appeared (pages 14-17) in the Fall/Winter 2004 edition of PRAIRIE WINGS, the newsletter (now magazine) of Audubon of Kansas.  The most recent edition of PRAIRIE WINGS is online at:
Click here for information in the KDWP&T “Briefing Book” provided to the Commission

USGS Whooping Crane Information Sheet

Anyone interested in sending comments directly to the decision makers can send an e-mail to the seven commissioners, KDWP&T Secretary (Robin Jennison) and/or Governor Brownback’s office (Jon Hummel, Policy Director). The contact information for all are as below:

Debra Bolton – dbolton@ksu.edu

Donald Budd Jr. –  don.budd@ksoutdoor.com

Frank Meyer – fsmeyer@tctelco.net

Gerald Lauber – gerald@kawvalleybank.com

Robert Wilson – rockyflats@cox.net

Tom Dill – tom.dill@ksoutdoor.com

Randy Doll – RDoll@powwwer.net

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About AOK

A statewide, 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization established to promote appreciation and stewardship of Kansas’ natural ecosystems, with special emphasis on conservation of prairies, birds, other wildlife and their habitat.

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