Sandhill crane hunting season is in the works
Minnesota could hold its first sandhill crane hunting season this fall if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives regulatory approval.
The hunt would occur in far northwestern Minnesota, which is in the migratory route for the midcontinent population of sandhill cranes, considered one of the largest crane populations in the world.
The population, which breeds in the Arctic and winters in Texas, is estimated between 300,000 and 500,000 birds.
"Biologically, there is no concern over hunting this population," said Ed Boggess, deputy director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Fish and Wildlife Division.
Sandhill cranes are hunted each fall in nine of 10 states in the Central Flyway, which extends from North Dakota to Texas. Hunters typically use decoys and hunt in grain fields, similar to goose hunting. Crane is considered one of the best-tasting wild game meats.
Cranes are called "flying filet mignon" in the 2004 cookbook "Wild at the Table," which suggests grilling the breasts and serving them with a juniper and wine sauce.
"I personally know a few people from Minnesota who go to North Dakota just to hunt cranes," said Bill Penning, DNR farmland wildlife program leader. "There has always been some interest in crane hunting in Minnesota, and the commissioner (Mark Holsten) is interested in it."
The season likely would begin in early September and run through early October. It would be held in the Northwest Goose Zone, which covers the state's northwest corner in parts or all of five counties.
The DNR hasn't determined how many licenses would be available or whether they would be sold through a lottery or over the counter. A small-game license would be needed at a minimum.
Minnesota has a growing population of sandhill cranes, but those birds, considered by federal regulators as part of an eastern population, would not be hunted.
A few regulatory hurdles stand in the way.
Minnesota is part of the 13-state Mississippi Flyway, and no regulatory framework has been established for crane hunting, said Jim Kelley, the Fish and Wildlife Services flyway representative.
Minnesota's proposal would have to be approved by a flyway technical committee and the Mississippi Flyway Council, then forwarded to the Fish and Wildlife Service for approval.
Those steps could be accomplished this spring, and the Fish and Wildlife Service could review the proposal at a June meeting. Minnesota's proposal stands a good chance of approval, Kelley said.
"I don't see any major stumbling blocks," he said.
Nebraska is the only state in the Central Flyway that doesn't allow crane hunting. Most states allow hunting in specific zones, not statewide, and efforts are made to educate hunters so sandhill cranes are not mistaken for whooping cranes, a rare and endangered species.
An estimated 10,000 hunters harvested 19,000 cranes in the Central Flyway in 2009, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Sandhill cranes in central and eastern Minnesota are growing in number and have posed problems for some farm crops, but federal authorities consider them a separate population from the midcontinent birds, and hunting them isn't allowed.
But the Mississippi Flyway is expected to approve an eastern crane management plan this spring, said DNR waterfowl biologist Steve Cordts, and that plan allows states to propose hunting seasons.
That means future crane seasons, with sustainable harvest quotas, could be allowed elsewhere in Minnesota.