Bloomington, Minn. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the harvest report for sandhill cranes, including the mid-continent population that is hunted in northwest Minnesota.
Harvest in Minnesota was 247 birds in 2014, down from 378 in 2013, but that was largely a function of the DNR cutting the bag limit from two birds to one.
“The drop last year was more because we dropped the bag limit,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist.
But is there more to the continued decline in both harvest and active sandhill crane hunters since Minnesota first opened the season in 2010? Harvest during the inaugural season was 830 birds, and there were 964 active hunters that year.
“The active hunter numbers mirror harvest,” Cordts said. “Since 2010, we have seen a drop every year, and it dropped even more last year because of the bag limit. … My guess is that there are a lot of people that perhaps hunted them once and view it as sort of a trophy and check it off of their list.”
It probably doesn’t help that there is no tradition of hunting sandhill cranes in Minnesota. And the location of the hunt, in far northwest Minnesota, is far removed from the state’s concentrations of waterfowl hunters in the metro and southern portions of the state.
“Crane hunting does take a little bit of scouting,” Cordts said. “They are smart. They can be hard to hunt. But if you put a little bit of time into it, you can be successful. They are fun to hunt, taste good, and are reasonably abundant in our zone.”
Last year’s lower harvest total was loser to what the DNR expected it might be when the season first opened in 2010.
“The first couple years of the hunt, harvest was more than we expected,” he said. “Still, there was no way to estimate what interest was going to be.”
Right now, managers are OK with the lower harvest. The state began conducting spring aerial surveys of breeding sandhill cranes in 2012. The number of birds estimated has dropped every year since, Cordts said. The population was estimated at about 8,000 birds the first year in 2012, but then dropped to about, 5,000 in 2013 and 3,000 in 2014.
That prompted the DNR to reduce the bag limit.
“We are not 100 percent sure that it accurately reflects (the population),” Cordts said.
But the survey is all waterfowl managers have to go on.
“It’s the only estimate we have right now, so we took a cautious approach (in reducing the bag limit),” Cordts said, stressing the small numbers of birds harvested each year should have had little influence on the population.
This year’s survey, conducted in May, is expected to be released soon, Cordts said.
And the population in the northwest zone, which basically conforms to Minnesota’s tallgrass aspen parkland biome, is not to be confused with the other population of birds that can be found to the east, even around the Twin Cities. The northwest population is part of the mid-continent population of birds, while the other sandhill cranes in the state are part of the continent’s eastern population, which breeds in east-central Minnesota, and parts of Ontario, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, Cordts said. These are birds that generally winter in Florida, while the mid-continent population winters in Texas.
The eastern flock is not hunted in Minnesota (save for a tiny tribal harvest that included two total cranes last year), but is hunted in Kentucky and Tennessee in the fall.
“We do have high density numbers of breeding cranes that are part of the eastern population,” Cordts said, noting that there has been some discussion of opening up a hunting season for them in Minnesota. “That’s not in the foreseeable future.”
For starters, managers would like to better understand any crossover between the two populations in the state, and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota looking into just that, using satellite transmitters to track birds and their migrations.