STAFFORD, Kan. (AP) -- Conservationists are raising concerns that a proposal to expand hunting at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Kansas could threaten whooping cranes that migrate through there, while refuge managers contend the federally endangered birds would be protected.
Currently, the refuge is closed when the whooping cranes stop on their annual migration. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed changing that to closing areas where the birds are known to frequent while allowing hunting elsewhere at Quivira. There's also interest in allowing deer and turkey hunting at the refuge, which is banned, The Lawrence Journal-World reported (http://bit.ly/10qtrhT ).
Conservationists contend the changes would put the cranes at risk.
"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 refuge manager Mike Oldham said he believes hunting can be expanded while still ensuring the safety of the whooping cranes.
"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.
Only about 600 whooping cranes remain in the world and the only self-sustaining flock of about 270 migrates every year from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. The 22,135-acre Quivira refuge is a rest stop along the 5,000-mile trip. This spring, 75 whooping cranes were confirmed at the refuge, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Closing the entire refuge when the cranes are there often disappoints hunters because the birds' arrival is unpredictable, wildlife officials said. And public lands for hunting in Kansas are limited, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's draft conservation plan. The plan and public response to it is under review.
Under the draft proposal, "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," Oldham said.
Klataske said the draft proposal changes the purpose of the refuge.
"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.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism supports the federal agency's recommendation.
"From our 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.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency said it hopes to approve a final plan by the end of the year.