The sandhill crane is now the ‘ribeye of the sky’

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Sandhill Cranes flying in formation into the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, N.M., (Associated Press photo)

I was surprised by the news that Minnesota has set a sandhill crane hunting season for the first time. Somehow I was under the impression they are rare, endangered birds.

Well, now I know. They’re not that rare. And while they remain protected in most of Minnesota, they are not endangered.

My family and I love hearing and seeing the cranes that live in the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, not far from our cabin in Big Lake. The cranes are tall, elegant birds. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, they are quite a sight in flight.

Just last week, an article in the Brainerd Dispatch reinforced my impression about the status of cranes. The paper reported that authorities were looking for two teens or young men that shot at cranes. One of the birds was wounded and later euthanized.

And now in parts of Minnesota, it will be OK to hunt sandhill cranes. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced a crane season from Sept. 4, through Oct.10. The DNR says:

The open area will consist of the “Northwest Goose Zone,” which includes portions of Kittson, Roseau, Marshall, Pennington, Red Lake and Polk counties. There will be a daily bag limit of two birds with a possession limit of four.

Outside the Northwest Goose Zone, sandhill cranes will remain protected, which means you can’t shoot them.

sandhill-crane.jpg Minnesota joins a growing list of states that allow some sandhill crane hunting. The DNR says about 450,000 sandhill cranes live in the mid-section of North America. The ideal population is about 350,00. Though once endangered, sandhill cranes “have long been considered ‘recovered’ and have been hunted in some states since 1961,” the DNR says.

During migration, the cranes often cause crop damage.

Fall migrants feed in agricultural fields, primarily small grains and waste corn. Concentrations of fall migrants in the northwest can cause severe depredation problems, especially during wet autumns when farmers are unable to harvest swaths before September. … As the crane population continues to expand, prevalence and severity of damage, and increased demand for depredation control should be expected.

So the DNR has concluded hunting will help keep the sandhill crane population in check. I won’t be rushing out for a permit, but I can accept the rationale for a limited sandhill crane season. It’s the same idea behind managing seasons and putting limits on ducks, deer and fish.

North Dakota hunters have been bagging sandhill cranes for years. The guys in this video show how they get it done.

You can buy your sandhill crane decoys at Cabela’s.

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And I’m certainly not the first one to type “sandhill crane recipes” into Google. Dive in and you’ll see plenty of references to the tasty “ribeye of the sky,” sandhill kabobs and sandhill fajitas.