Indiana and the Fish and Wildlife Service offered a $2,500 reward and worked for 18 months to catch the guys who shot an endangered whooping crane in December, 2009. But the sentence they handed out in a plea deal was a lot cheaper for the offenders than it was for the public. Wade Bennett of Cuyaga, IN, now 19, agreed to one year of probation, about $500 in court costs and–this is the stunning part–a $1 fine. We don’t know what another guy–the apparent shooter who was then a juvenile–got.
Conservationists and hunters alike say that’s no way to deter poaching such a rare bird–only about 400 of which survive in the wild.
We don’t even know exactly what happened. Isn’t that supposed to be the point of a plea bargain? If you don’t get justice, at least you find out the truth? Instead, Bennett plead guilty on April 30 and released the flimsiest of stories that on December 1, 2009, Bennett’s juvenile friend shot the 7-year-old female whooping crane and he was vaguely involved. The bird, known as 17-02, one of the most prolific in the breeding program, was migrating to Wisconsin to Florida.
The International Crane Foundation was, understandably, outraged: ”It is difficult to place a value on an endangered species. In this instance, however, the actual cost of rearing and releasing this one Whooping Crane is estimated to be over $110,000.”
The Smithsonian said of the $1 fine: “If we’re going to look for symbolism in that symbolic fine, we might conclude that the crane wasn’t worth much at all.”
Even a local Cayuga shooting range owner found the fine ridiculous. “Personally, I think it should’ve been a lot more than that. They could fine them 400-500 bucks and make them stay in for a a while,” says Albert Clark, owner of Clark’s Shooting Range. “They were probably just trying to shoot something for the sake of shooting something. Hunters don’t do things like that. We could shoot eagles all day long and same thing with the deer. They just watch us shoot. But we don’t do that.”
The Vermillion County Deputy Prosecutor Gregory Carter issued a statement, citing a confusing change in personnel, guidance from the FWS and Indiana law that killing an endangered species is only an A misdemeanor. Besides, Carter, says “evidence established that the juvenile was responsible for shooting….The adult entered a plea of guilty to False Informing, an A misdemeanor. The factual basis in his case established that he had a peripheral involvement and did not participate in the actual killing of the bird but did not disclose the nature and extent of his knowledge of the incident when questioned by the authorities.”
The prosecutor also basically says that if conservation groups don’t like the $1 fine, they should sue the boys to try to get more: Carter asks: “specifically, could restitution be calculated and made payable to a party meeting the definition of a victim in the Indiana statute on restitution….More problematic, however, was the question of who would be entitled to this restitution.”
This sad case is just the latest in a long line of cases where hunters hardly get any punishment for shooting endangered species. Hunting groups lobby specifically to get endangered species brought back as experimental–as opposed to essential–populations so the rules say that it’s okay if you accidentally shoot one. States that take whooping cranes more seriously warn hunters continuously about how to distinguish a whooping crane from the more common sandhill crane. (It’s easy. The whoopers are white and the sandhills are gray.) Yet, the Republican party likes to assault the ESA rules as too onerous.
- 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 deadin December near No one owned up to it.
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