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Texas Hunters Wanted Special Easy Punishment For Shooting Whooping Cranes

whooping crane poster
The federal and state wildlife officials announced plans to release four to eight juvenile whooping cranes in a huge pen at White Lake, then add up to 30 a year to create a non-migratory flock. There’s a strange line in the federal register about how Texas wanted the cranes to make it easier on hunting regulations.

That’s a little greedy since they already have the biggest and best flock, which winters in Arnasas. It’s also a little piggish because what they are in effect saying is that they wanted the flock so that if hunters shot a whooping crane they wouldn’t be charged with messing with an endangered species. Here’s how the Fish and Wildlife Service put it in their public document:

During that discussion, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department representative expressed interest in having two coastal counties in Texas included as part of the area for this proposed experimental population to avoid possible closures of waterfowl hunting if whooping cranes from the proposed experimental population were to wander into the area. This proposed regulation does not include those two counties as the Service believes that expansion of the endangered AWBP [Arnasas flock] into the two coastal counties is an essential aspect of achieving recovery of the species.

What they’re talking about is this: all populations of an endangered species are divided into those that are essential to the survival of the species and those that are called non-essential experimental. If you kill part of an essential population, you’re in big trouble–up to a year in jail, $100,000 fine and vehicles confiscated. (Though, in practice, I bet that never happens.) If you kill a bird from a non-essential population, you still get hit with a big fine, say $7,000 to $15,000, but it’s not nearly as bad.

The Wildlife Service, wisely, didn’t go along with this plan and instead put the proposed flock where they knew non-migrating whooping cranes once lived. But really this whole new flock should be considered essential. The species plan says that they need 40 breeding pairs in the Arnasas flock and 25 breeding pairs each in two other flocks to be not endangered. But they do play down conflict with hunters killing whoopers in the past, pinning it on “novice hunters”–and assuring hunters that they won’t get a big penalty for accidentally shooting whooping cranes in Louisiana.

conflicts have resulted from the hunting of migratory birds in areas utilized by whooping cranes, particularly the hunting of  sandhill cranes and snow geese (Chen cerulescens), because novice hunters may have difficulty distinguishing whooping cranes from those species…Accidental shooting of a whooping crane in this experimental population occurring in the course of otherwise lawful hunting activity is exempt from take restrictions under the Act in this proposed special regulation.

Calling the people who shot the whooping cranes "novice hunters" is being overly generous if not insincere. Hunters are always supposed to absolutely identify what they are shooting, as well as what's behind it. Kansas has a mandatory online course for sandhill hunters that explains the difference: Sandhill and whooping cranes are the same basic shape, but whoopers are white with black wing tips and sandhills are gray. Anyone who mistakes a whooping crane for a goose should not be hunting. They tell hunters not to shoot in low light or from more than 40 yards away. But hunters still end up shooting them.
Looking at the record of whooping crane shootings, I don't see any evidence of novices being involved. In a couple cases the hunters tried to cover up their crime by burying the bird. That says they know what a whooping crane is, they just didn't check before they shot it. State wildlife agencies do seem serious about deterring the shootings, telling hunters that they could loose sandhill hunting if they keep killing whooping cranes. Who knows how many whooping cranes are buried around the country.
  • 1968 – When only 48 whooping cranes existed, an Arlington, TX, hunter shot one.
  • 1989 Near Arnasas a goose hunter/lawyer shot a crane, buried it, but then later reported himself. Paid $15,000 fine.
  • 1991 In Central TX, San Saba County, a fisherman “saw these big birds and he went back to his truck and got his Model 12 Winchester and—and shot one of them for no reason at all,” game warden Colonel Jim Stinebaugh said in his interview with the Texas Legacy project. The hunter buried the bird and the game warden only found it by doing some nice detective work and running into a boy talking about the big bird his uncle killed.
  • 2004-Quivira NWR, KS  Three clearly white whooping cranes were shot on the opening morning of the goose and sandhill crane hunting season and left horribly mangled in the field. Again, no one confessed, though later they did find and fine seven hunters. Two birds died after exhaustive treatments, including a leg amputation. The third disappeared. The hunters and tried to use the sandhill crane defense. “If hunters were involved in a situation where they shot whooping cranes, they would have to be just really willfully doing indiscriminate shooting,” said Ducks Unlimited’s Joe Satrom told the Kansas City Star.
  • 2009 Cayuga, IN. A whooping crane found dead The latest bird killed–the only captive bred female to successfully breed in the wild–was just found dead in December near No one owned up to it.

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