Expansion of hunting opportunities in the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge is being proposed by wildlife officials but faces opposition from birdwatchers who say the recommendation will put at risk the endangered whooping crane.
"What has become probably the most significant migratory stop for the whooping crane in Kansas could be substantially less accommodating for whooping cranes in the future," said Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas.
But Mike Oldham, manager of the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Kansas, says he believes expanding access to hunting can be done while ensuring the safety of whooping cranes, a federally endangered species that is illegal to shoot.
"We carefully considered the risks to the federally endangered whooping cranes that migrate through during the hunting season when considering the expanded access," Oldham said.
A rest stop in Kansas
For the whooping crane, the tallest bird in North America and one of the rarest, the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge is a welcome sight.
Brought to the edge of extinction in the 1940s, there are about 600 whooping cranes remaining in the world.
The only self-sustaining flock, numbering about 270, migrates in the fall from the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. In the spring, it returns to Canada to breed.
That's a 5,000-mile arduous and sometimes dangerous journey.
The 22,135-acre refuge in Kansas is a safe stopover where the birds, some as tall as 5 feet with a wing span exceeding 7 feet, can rest and eat.
Currently, if "whoopers" are present at the refuge, hunting for other animals, such as ducks, geese and pheasant, is closed to avoid disturbing the whoopers and prevent accidentally shooting them.
This spring produced the second highest number of confirmed sightings of whooping cranes at 75, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And last fall, 73 whooping cranes visited the refuge, which is about 240 miles west and south of Lawrence.
The closures due to Whoopers has resulted in some disappointed hunters, officials say.
"Whooping crane arrivals and departures are unpredictable, which makes it difficult for hunters to plan ahead. Public lands for hunting in Kansas are also limited, which exacerbates their frustration," according to a draft conservation plan for the refuge that has been put forward by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The plan notes that whooping cranes attract birders but adds, "We at the refuge have received many requests to reconsider our refuge-wide closures."
In addition, while deer and turkey hunting have never been allowed at the refuge, the plan states "there is interest in allowing these hunting activities in the future."
Plan and public comments under review
The 263-page document and the public comment it has generated are under review.
Under the draft proposal, instead of shutting down hunting when whoopers are present, the refuge would allow hunting but put areas off limits where whoopers are known to frequent. "Hunting boundaries would be adjusted to close areas frequently used by whooping cranes to hunting, and open new areas that have not previously been available for hunting," Oldham said. "The manager would have the authority to close any area being used by whooping cranes at any time. We believe that this approach will adequately protect whooping cranes, while also expanding hunting opportunities for the public to enjoy."
Klataske said the refuge should be going in the opposite direction from the recommendation and just shut down hunting entirely during the periods when whoopers are known be around.
"These whooping crane need places where they can go to rest, recuperate and recharge for the remainder of their migrations," Klataske said.
He said the draft proposal changes the purpose of the refuge, making it more of a hunting area.
"It will not be as attractive for people to come throughout the country to view birds and other wildlife. It is probably the best wildlife viewing destination that we have in the state of Kansas," he said.
But officials with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism support the federal agency's recommendation, saying there is a need for more places to hunt.
"From out standpoint, the hunters and fishers of Kansas, we felt like there could be additional opportunity without jeopardizing the refuge's mission," said Keith Sexson, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and boating with the state agency. "I can assure you that the Fish and Wildlife Service, because of their sensitivity to the whooping crane, they would not be entertaining this idea that would increase the chances of whooping crane being impacted."
The Fish and Wildlife agency says it hopes to approve a final plan by the end of the year.