Published August 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

Minnesota crane hunt marks the dawn of a new season

Minnesota's inaugural sandhill crane hunt is limited to parts of a half-dozen counties that comprise the state’s Northwest Goose Zone. But the season definitely presents a new opportunity for hunters to target a wary, challenging and good-tasting bird known in some hunting circles as “ribeye in the sky.”

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

To Steve Cordts’ knowledge, Minnesota has never offered a sandhill crane season — not since 1915, at least — but that all changes Saturday, when hunters in a small chunk of northwestern Minnesota can go afield for the gangly migratory birds.

Waterfowl staff specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, Cordts said he’s not expecting a large turnout for the inaugural hunt, which is limited to parts of a half-dozen counties that comprise Minnesota’s Northwest Goose Zone. But the season definitely presents a new opportunity for hunters to target a wary, challenging and good-tasting bird known in some hunting circles as “ribeye in the sky.”

Minnesota’s limited crane season continues through Oct. 10, and the daily limit is two birds with a possession limit of four.

“They’re a fun bird,” said Cordts, who has hunted cranes in Texas, Canada and the Dakotas. “I think they’re probably as tough of a bird to hunt after some exposure to hunting pressure as anything as far as their wariness.

“They learn pretty fast.”

Midcontinent population

According to Cordts, the sandhill cranes in northwestern Minnesota are part of the midcontinent population — the same birds that pass through North Dakota, which has offered a crane season since the 1960s. Estimated at nearly 500,000 birds, the midcontinent population is in good shape and exceeds the management goal of 349,000.

Midcontinent cranes winter on the gulf coast and are almost exclusively restricted to the Central Flyway. The exception, Cordts said, is the piece of northwestern Minnesota where the DNR is offering the season. The DNR requested the season last March and received federal approval for a limited hunt earlier this summer.

Minnesota is in the Mississippi Flyway.

“The population is doing pretty well continentally, and that’s kind of the basis of our rationale for requesting a season,” Cordts said. “They’re hunted in all states in the Central Flyway except Nebraska.”

Cordts said news of the Minnesota season has drawn some criticism, mainly because the DNR didn’t offer a comment period before establishing the hunt. At the same time, though, he said, the bulk of Minnesota’s sandhill cranes are from the eastern population that winters in the southeastern U.S. and isn’t hunted anywhere in the country.

Those birds remain off-limits in Minnesota, Cordts said.

Geese and cranes

The crane opener coincides with the beginning of the early Canada goose season in the Northwest Goose Zone. Cordts said he expects most of the pressure will come from northwest goose hunters who decide to buy the $3.50 permit to hunt sandhill cranes.

Cranes aren’t classified as small game in Minnesota, Cordts said, so the DNR can’t require hunters to purchase a small game license. The $3.50 permit is the only license needed to hunt the birds, he said. That holds true for both residents and nonresidents.

As with other migratory birds, though, hunters must use nontoxic shot and plugged shotguns.

Surveys have shown about 1,000 people hunt geese in the Northwest Goose Zone, Cordts said. He said the DNR doesn’t estimate Minnesota’s breeding crane population, but statistics from states that offer seasons have shown most hunters typically take one or two cranes annually.

He expects the trend to carry into Minnesota.

“There’s been some concern raised by various people as far as what impact this might have on breeding numbers of cranes, but I don’t think that we’re going to have huge numbers of crane hunters up there,” Cordts said. “We don’t think there’ll be a huge influx of guys from the cities to try to shoot a crane or two.”

Cordts said statistics show only two Central Flyway states — North Dakota and Texas — have more than 500 crane hunters. North Dakota has sold more than 7,500 crane permits annually since 2005, with the exception of 2008, when 6,653 hunters bought permits, the Game and Fish Department said.

What to expect

Randy Prachar, manager of the Roseau River and Thief Lake wildlife management areas in northwestern Minnesota, said most of the cranes now in the area seem to be local birds that are staging on larger public lands and feeding in agricultural fields.

There’s been little sign of migrant birds yet, he said, although that could change any day.

Prachar, who’s planning to hunt cranes for the first time, said the key likely will be to find harvested grain fields and then obtain landowner permission.

“It’s not a whole lot different from trying to pattern what Canada geese are doing,” Prachar said.

For now, he said, the cranes are widely scattered.

Because the season is new, Cordts said he expects hunting will be good this year.

“They haven’t been hunted up there, well, ever,” Cordts said. “The bulk of the birds you shoot will be adults, and I think they’ll figure it out pretty quickly. Maybe not quite this year, but they’ll respond and act over time much like cranes anywhere else. It’s not something we can just go out and shoot one and expect easy pickings.”

Cordts said setting decoys and pass shooting both are effective techniques for hunting cranes. Hunters who locate a field used by cranes should set up where the birds are feeding and stay concealed.

“I’d probably tend to avoid edges and things like that,” Cordts said. “Set up in the middle if possible, as long as you’re pretty well concealed.”

Hunting on or within 100 yards of surface water is prohibited through Sept. 22, the last day of the early goose season in the Northwest Goose Zone.

Watch the dogs

Cordts said hunters who use retrievers for geese should keep their dogs away from the cranes, especially wounded birds.

“There are lots of one-eyed dogs running around from trying to pickup a sandhill that’s not fully dead,” he said. “Their bills are very stout, and the first thing they’ll do with a dog is cock the head back and make a jab that usually is directed at their eyes.”

Cordts said the DNR opted to start slowly with the inaugural crane hunt, offering a 37-day season with a two-bird bag. Most states in the Central Flyway, by comparison, offer a 58-day season and three birds.

He said hunters who buy a crane permit will receive a survey after the season to gauge harvest and hunting activity.

“It’s going to be watched pretty closely,” Cordts said. “We’re venturing into new ground, and if we need to change something, as early as next year we have the ability to do that.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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