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A New Hunting Opportunity in Alabama

Hunting Regulations Icon Alabama Hunting & Fishing

It’s not everyday the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) has the opportunity to add a gamebird species to the list of available hunting opportunities. For the record, it’s been 13 years since a new species has been added to the list of open seasons and 103 years since Alabama hunters have had the opportunity to harvest a sandhill crane. If you have traversed the landscapes within watersheds of the Tennessee or Coosa Rivers in recent years, especially while waterfowl hunting, you have likely seen an increase in sandhill crane numbers and have heard their rather loud raucous vocalizations. These vocalizations described as a resounding gutteral “garoo-oo-a-a-a” sound, can be heard from well over a mile away. Standing over four feet tall, with a wingspan of more than six feet, these birds are impressive to see up close and even more so in hand. Sandhill cranes are well known to hunters for its regal appearance, but even more so for its outstanding table fare attribute, hence it’s nickname, “Ribeye of the sky”. Beginning in December of 2019, Alabama’s hunters will have the opportunity to hunt and harvest this bird once again through a limited quota draw hunt program.

Due to the lack of regulatory protection, sandhill cranes were once hunted to near extinction. In 1916, hunting for this species was closed in the U.S. due to over exploitation and laws were passed to protect their wetland habitat from drainage. In addition, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted to provide protection for all migratory birds to avoid further exploitation. As a result, sandhill crane populations began to rebound due to these conservation efforts. In 1961, the Mid-Continent Population of sandhill cranes had recovered sufficiently to support hunting opportunities in the Central Flyway states. The recovery of the Eastern Population (EP), located east of the Mississippi, has required a little more time to recover. Nonetheless, over the past 30 years, not only have sandhill crane numbers increased but their range has expanded to new migratory stopover and wintering areas. The population and distribution expansion of the EP has led the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyway Councils to establish a cooperative management plan in 2010, and in response to those increased populations, included provisions for states to establish hunting seasons. In 2011, Kentucky became the first state east of the Mississippi River to open a sandhill crane hunting season since the last hunting opportunity in 1916. In 2013, Tennessee became the second state to open a season. Since 2011, over 11,900 permits have been distributed with over 3,000 cranes being harvested in those two states. Beginning in the 2019–20 season, Alabama will have the opportunity to be the third state to open a sandhill crane hunting season.

Sandhill crane numbers in Alabama have continued to increase in abundance over the last decade. Alabama’s wintering population is a segment of the EP and is distributed primarily within the northern part of the state in the Tennessee River Valley (TRV). WFF began counting cranes in 2010, as part of their annual aerial waterfowl surveys. WFF conducts two aerial surveys annually, with a Preseason survey conducted in November and a Mid-winter survey conducted in January. Surveys have reveiled populations of sandhill cranes to be continually increasing in the state and the wintering range to be expanding beyond the TRV region. As of 2018, cranes are found throughout the TRV in north Alabama, and surrounding water bodies, including Weiss Reservoir on the Coosa River. This increase in Alabama’s wintering sandhill crane numbers, coupled with the range expansion, has resulted in Alabama’s waterfowl hunters observing more cranes while afield. The increasing wintering sandhill crane populations, along with the opening of a hunting season in Kentucky and Tennessee, have prompted many hunters to voice interest for an opportunity to hunt sandhill cranes in Alabama. WFF recently submitted a proposal to the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyway Councils for an experimental sandhill crane hunting season. The proposal received concurrence from both Flyway Councils and approval was received from the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Regulations Committee for Alabama to initiate the experimental sandhill crane hunting season in 2019.

The number of sandhill crane hunting permits that will be available to Alabama’s hunters is based on 10% of the latest 5-year average of WFF’s Mid-winter aerial survey (Figure 1). The first three years of Alabama’s sandhill crane hunting season are considered experimental, meaning the state must demonstrate that implementation does not have a significant impact on the species. Based on mid-winter survey results, up to 1,502 permits would be allowable for Alabama to utilize. However, during the experimental period, WFF has elected to utilize a conservative number of 1,200 permits, to ensure harvest does not adversely impact the current population trend of sandhill cranes in Alabama.

The federal season framework for cranes allows for a 60-day season, with no splits. WFF has selected a 60-day season beginning in December 2019 and running through late January 2020 for the inaugural season. The daily and season bag and possession limit for sandhill cranes is 3 birds per limited quota permit. Two sandhill crane hunting zones will be designated, one hunted and one non-hunted. The zones will be defined as the area north of Interstate 20 from the Georgia state line to the interchange with Interstate 65, then east of Interstate 65 to the interchange with Interstate 22, then north of Interstate 22 to the Mississippi state line. The non-hunting zone will be the remainder of the state (see map). Many public lands including wildlife management areas, wildlife refuges, and national forests may have more restrictive hunting regulations, so be sure to review those property specific regulations before engaging in any hunting activities on public lands.

If you are interested in this new hunting opportunity in Alabama, it’s finally arrived. Only 400 hunters will have the chance to get selected for a limited quota permit and participate during the 2019–20 season. The limited quota sandhill crane hunt will be available to Alabama resident hunters only. All interested hunters must register online to be eligible. The online registration will be open in early-September and the drawing will take place in October. For more details on this unique opportunity, visit www.outdooralabama.com.

Figure 1