Sandhill Crane Hunt helps scientists study and manage population

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Sandhill cranes are a beloved bird that visit the Land of Enchantment every winter. This past weekend was important for studying and managing the Sandhill Crane population.

KOB 4 got an inside look at how researchers and outdoorsman come together for a common cause.

Their call is distinct, their size sets them apart and on Sunday the New Mexico Sandhill Crane Hunt ended.

“Having a hunter harvest is an important tool for managing that population,” said Darren Vaughan, a New Mexico Department of Game and Fish spokesperson. 

Vaughan knows how cherished these birds are. 

“Almost an annual right-of-passage to see the cranes come through,” said Vaughan. 

He also says the closely-monitored lottery hunt is invaluable.

“Overpopulation is just as unhealthy as under-population,” Vaughan said.  

New Mexico is 1 of 17 states that allow sandhill crane hunting. 

Vaughan says most sandhill cranes here are the rocky mountain variety, and this year there are between 20 and 25,000.   

“It seems to be right around where we would like to see it,” he said. 

The hunt doesn’t just manage the population it helps researchers understand them.

Chris Witt leads a team of researchers at the University of New Mexico.

“It very much resembles the fighting claw of a velociraptor and because birds are descended from dinosaurs, they’re not too distantly related from velociraptors,” said Witt. 

Students meet hunters at Game and Fish check stations to take samples, studying bird diseases, behavior and sometimes the cranes reveal more. One crane was banded in Wyoming in 1993. Now, the 30-year-old bird is helping unlock the secrets of the sandhill.

“There’s a lot of discovery there,” Witt said. 

The future of these birds does not hinge on a hunt, Game and Fish says it’s about caring for the land.

“As long as we’re maintain enough healthy habitat, and you know on the wintering grounds here in New Mexico, but also in their migration and staging areas and in their breeding locations. That will ensure these birds are healthy for years to come and generations to come,” said Vaughan.