It’s a Federal Crime to Kill a Whooping Crane

In the time I’ve been following what I sometimes call “the whooping crane drama,” 8 of these beautiful birds that belonged to our Eastern Migratory Population have died by gunfire. Though most of these deaths are unsolved cases, both the members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and those in the law enforcement community who have investigated the deaths, believe these are not accidental shootings, but wanton, senseless killings. Now two more such killings have been reported – so 10 whooping cranes in the EMP, which nests here in Wisconsin, have been destroyed this way.

The bad news arrived mid-January in the form of a press release from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and it spread fast, re-broadcast by the International Crane Foundation, WCEP, Operation Migration, and other whooping crane partners. An injured crane had been discovered, and ultimately euthanized in late November, in Hopkins County, KY, and the body of its mate was recovered in Muhlenberg County, KY, on December 13, 2013. The Louisville Courier Journal reported that wildlife authorities had delayed announcing these killings “while they gathered evidence” and put together a reward package in order to ask for the public’s help in finding the perpetrators.

A Broadly-supported Effort to Encourage Public Input on Crane Killings

Is there anything that is more frustrating and unnerving to those who devote a good part of their lives to  preserving the endangered whooping crane? I don’t think so. The reward money, for anyone who gives information that directly leads to arrest and conviction of those responsible,  has steadily grown from  $7,200 to over $15,000. All kinds of groups are contributing to it, and in addition to those directly involved, these include the Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the Kentucky chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Friends of Wheeler NWR, and more.

The killings are violations of both the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  The International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration are both urging their friends and followers to share widely the following “Help Us Save the Whooping Crane” public service announcement:

Eight More Whooping Crane Shootings

Here’s a brief rundown of what is known about the deaths-by-gunfire suffered by eight other birds in the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes:

At the end of 2010 – December 30th, in Georgia – the bodies of 3 young “Direct Autumn Release” cranes were found in Calhoun County. The cranes were on their first migration from Wisconsin, learning the way from older birds.

Early in 2011, two whooping cranes believed to have been shot were found at Weiss Lake in Alabama. The body of one was discovered on January 28th, and the second crane’s body was recovered in mid-February less than a quarter-mile away from where the first was found.

In the spring of 2011 a juvenile shooter and the adult that accompanied him were charged and sentenced in Indiana for the 2009 killing of an EMP crane. USFWS officials welcomed the closure to this case, but they got little else. The unusually light sentence imposed on the shooter in the Vermillion County, Indiana court left anger and disbelief among so many in the wildlife conservation community.

The year ended with the bad news of a second whooping crane shot in Indiana; its remains were discovered near Crothersville, Dec. 30th, 2011.  And while the new year was still fresh – on January 21, 2012 – someone in the Indiana DNR received a tip from a citizen that led to the discovery of a third whooping crane shot in Indiana.

Some justice, at least, seemed to prevail when two shooters were held responsible for the third Indiana whooping crane killing. Jason McCarter and John Burke, each of Knox County, were sentenced to 3 years of probation, 120 hours of community service at a state wildlife area, and a donation of $5,000 to the International Crane Foundation.

There have been some illegal shootings of whooping cranes outside the Eastern Migratory Population as well, and a recent case in South Dakota earned a 26-year-old shooter a truly stiff sentence: the requirement that he make $85,000 in restitution payments and serve 2 years of probation with no hunting or trapping rights. This news cheered wildlife conservationists and raised hopes that the message will spread to other potential shooters:  it really IS a crime to take the life of these birds.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Photo from Wikimedia Commons