I was horrified. My boss was, too, when I showed her what I found on the Web site of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. But this story is best told from the beginning.
I like to watch wildlife and wanted to know more. I went to the Watchable Wildlife Web site (www.azgfd.gov/outdoor_recreation/watchable_wildlife.shtml) to be greeted by an amazing picture of Sandhill cranes.
I dabble in bird-watching, and the picture sparked a memory of a serious bird-watcher I met at a Super Bowl party last February.
Take a trip to Willcox, she said, and see the Sandhill cranes. There’s nothing like watching and hearing a giant flock of the beautiful big birds take flight, she said.
I’m going to have the time to take that trip this winter. I wanted to find out precisely where to go.
The picture on the Watchable Wildlife Web site was not attached to an article; so I typed Sandhill cranes into the search box.
The first link was to an article that told me how to get a permit to hunt them.
What the …
As I said, I was horrified. What exactly is the state promoting: watching or killing? What next, the goldfinches I feed in my backyard?
I was working up a lather and decided to give it to Joe Yarchin, who runs the Watchable Wildlife program for the state.
I tracked down his phone number and, as it so often turns out, Yarchin was not an easy guy to chew out.
He was polite, passionate and patient.
Here I was a capital I (indignant) up against the three Ps.
But the “p” that impressed me the most was his passion for his job as the state’s urban and watchable wildlife — a passion that manifests itself today in a new book for Arizona wildlife watchers. (Go to the Web site for more information on the book.)
Yarchin further deflected my indignation by patiently explaining the economics of supporting wildlife watching.
You see, people like me are free-loaders — my words, not his. In buying hunting licenses, the hunters pay the bills for restoring and maintaining animal habitat.
Arizona Lottery players also help. A portion of the lottery take goes into what is called the State Heritage Fund.
So how many cranes are taken out by hunters each year?
For the answer, Yarchin referred me to Mike Rabe, migratory game bird supervisor.
Rabe was even more patient and a one-man Wikipedia on Sandhills.
He said the annual “harvest” runs between 200 and 300 cranes.
That’s out of a steadily growing population of more than 36,000 that migrate into the state from as far north as Alaska each year.
As you can imagine, taking a census of cranes is not an exact science.
But the state’s first attempt at doing so in 1981 resulted in an estimated population of 5,000.
The point is the population is flourishing, and Rabe says the state’s efforts in habitat restoration in the Willcox area at places called Willcox Playa and Whitewater Draw should be credited.
Rabe explained that cranes sleep standing in water. They couldn’t count on water in Arizona every winter so in dry years they would fly into Mexico.
That’s why the state pumps water into a dry lake called Willcox Playa and why it bought Whitewater Draw in 1997 and built a dam to capture runoff water, giving the cranes a place to sleep.
Had Rabe ever shot a Sandhill crane?
Rabe is an honest man. Dark meat. Tastes more like beef than chicken, he told me.
My reaction is not that unusual, he said.
“Sandhills are spectacular birds. Some people are horrified” that they are hunted, he said.
I forgave him, but only after he shared his favorite place for watching the Sandhills take flight.
“Park the car there at sunrise, and you’ll see wave after wave come off of Whitewater Draw,” he said.