D190113 Cranes

Cranes hang out on the refuge during the Festival of the Cranes in Decatur. [CHRIS SHIMEK/DECATUR DAILY]

Nearly 7,000 people attended the weekend-long Festival of Cranes this past January where the main attractions are about 20 whooping cranes and thousands of sandhill cranes at north Alabama's Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

So, when talk of a winter hunting season on the sandhill cranes in Alabama reached festival organizers and birdwatchers, they were concerned.

“I felt like it was hypocritical,” Wheeler Wildlife Refuge Association President Mary Ratliff said this week. “We're going to celebrate them — just ignore the shooting.”

“This is a big deal for us because the whooping cranes are integrated with the sandhill cranes, and people come from all over the country to see them.”

At advocates request, Alabama’s new sandhill crane hunting season in north Alabama has a 10-day break to accommodate the Festival of Cranes.

“We decided to do a split season,” Alabama Department of Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship told Alabama Daily News. “We thought that was a good thing to do.”

This is the first time in more than a century hunting the migratory sandhill cranes is legal in Alabama. As the large birds made a population comeback in recent years, other states, including Tennessee, have allowed hunting.

At Ratliff’s request, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, asked Blankenship to take the festival into consideration.

“I’m very complimentary of the Department of Conservation for being able to work with locals,” Orr said. “This will hopefully help the festival not be adversely affected.”

The inaugural sandhill season will run Dec. 3, 2019, to Jan. 5, 2020, and then from Jan. 16 to 31, 2020. Next year’s festival is Jan. 10-12.

Ratliff said crane advocates would have preferred Morgan County be left out of the hunting season, or the state simply not allow it, but she said she appreciates conservation’s cooperation.

Ricky Ingram, project leader at Wheeler National Refuge, said that while hunting is one of the six priority uses of lands in the national refuge system, there will be no waterfowl or crane hunting at Wheeler in the upcoming season.

“Any disturbance would be hunting on nearby land,” Ingram said.

Conservation will use a lottery to issue 400 permits, each allowing hunters to harvest three cranes.

According to Conservation, there are about 15,000 sandhill cranes in Alabama, most around the Tennessee River Valley.

Mixed in with the sandhills around Wheeler Refuge each winter are a few endangered whooping cranes.

The whooping cranes aren’t part of the new hunting season, but Ratliff and others are concerned for them.

“They’re all banded, they all have names,” Ratliff said. “Just the thought of one of them getting caught in the crossfire is very upsetting.”

Orr said some hunter education was requested.

Blankenship said before hunters get their sandhill permits, they’ll have to take an online identification course to so they don’t confuse sandhill cranes with any other species.

Sandhills are gray and stand 4 to 5 feet tall with a wingspan of 4 to 6 feet. The whooping crane is solid white and larger than the sandhill crane.

“If they’re a reputable hunter, they should not mistake the two birds,” Ingram said.

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