Conservation

A Whooping Crane's Killer Got Off Easy, Frustrating Conservationists

The Louisiana man will face no jail time and no fine after shooting one of the most endangered birds in the world.

Last month, a Louisiana man was sentenced in a federal district court to 120 hours of community service and two years on probation for shooting and killing a Whooping Crane, one of the most endangered birds in the world. The decision was far lighter than conservationists had hoped and advocated for. 

According to court documents and those familiar with the case, 53-year-old Gilvin Aucoin shot the crane with a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle while working on a crawfish farm in 2018, allegedly in an attempt to scare the bird away. He will face no jail time, no fines, and will not be asked to forfeit his firearms, though he will lose his hunting and fishing licenses while on probation.

“I had a strong feeling that Aucoin was going to get off pretty easy, but I did not anticipate how easy,” says Lizzie Condon, the International Crane Foundation’s outreach coordinator and Whooping Crane specialist. Condon, who attended the hearing, had hoped for at least a heavy fine. We really wanted to have one on [Aucoin’s] record because, in my opinion, there has not been really strong sentencing administered in Louisiana, where this is a huge problem.”

Louisiana has the highest rate of Whooping Crane shootings in the country—11 birds have been killed in the state since 2011, when its nonmigratory flock was established by the ICF and its partners as part of a larger reintroduction effort. The flock lost two other members to shootings in Texas, bringing its total number down to fewer than 70 birds.

Despite the Whooping Crane being severely endangered, Aucoin benefitted from a Department of Justice rule called the McKittrick Policy. It requires proof that a defendant was aware they were killing an endangered animal in order for them to be prosecuted under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). With prior knowledge being extremely difficult to prove, the federal government instead charged Aucoin with a misdemeanor violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

How a Whooping Crane killing is prosecuted can have a significant effect on the severity of the sentence, though the exact punishments still vary widely. A Texas shooter charged with violating the ESA in 2016 was fined $25,810 and sentenced to 200 hours of community service as well as five years’ probation. The sentence for a 2011 Alabama shooting tried under the MBTA, on the other hand, resulted in a mere $425 fine. A sampling of the past decade’s Whooping Crane shooting cases show a pattern of harsher punishments for shooters tried under the ESA, making the McKittrick Policy especially important. 

Tough sentences act as more than just a deterrent: Hefty fines and restitutions reflect the fact that a single Whooping Crane can cost more than $100,000 to hatch, raise, and monitor into adulthood. Once abundant in parts of the Midwest and southern U.S., the birds were hunted to near-extinction in the early 1900s. In recent decades, the ICF and others have successfully reestablished several flocks. But despite efforts to protect the birds through education and advocacy, 42 Whooping Cranes have been shot dead in North America since the species was classified as endangered in 1967.

The crane killed by Aucoin, known as L8-11, was considered one of “the most valuable birds in the flock,” according to an ICF press release. He and his mate had been successfully nesting and mating since 2014, when they produced the first pair of Whooping Crane eggs laid in Louisiana outside of captivity. This makes his loss “particularly devastating,” Condon told the Associated Press.

The crawfish farm where L8-11 was killed was adjacent to the property where he had lived and nested with his mate for the past five years. According to Sarah Zimorski, a wildlife biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the owner of the nearby property became worried after noticing the bird’s absence.

“The landowner contacted me in the evening and said that he was concerned, that he thought something was wrong,” she says. “He was only seeing one bird, and it was continuously calling and flying around the property.” Whooping Cranes mate for life and spend most of their time together, so the report alarmed Zimorski and her colleagues. “That was a huge red flag for us right away,” she says. The crane’s body was later recovered using GPS tracker data.

It is unclear why Whooping Cranes are so often the victims of shootings, but records show that hunters are rarely to blame: A 2018 report by the ICF found that 72 percent of shooters identified since 1990 were not actively hunting at the time of their crime. Instead, the majority of perpetrators are illegal poachers who consider the cranes a nuisance, a threat to crops, or merely a convenient target.

"Louisianians are proud of their sportsman’s paradise, a common slogan of the state, but there is nothing sporting about shooting this or other protected species,” say Erik Johnson, Audubon Louisiana’s director of bird conservation. 

At the hearing, Aucoin’s lawyer, federal public defender James Klock, argued that a fishing license suspension would serve as a suitable punishment for Aucoin, who enjoys fishing recreationally. More severe punishments like fines or jail time, Klock argued, would be inappropriate for his client due to his low income, clean criminal record, and a lack of malicious motive. “It wasn't just senseless,” he said. “He wasn't trying to profit.”

While the ICF and other conservation groups were not permitted to make statements at the hearing, a few of them, including Orleans Audubon, attended a private meeting with the U.S Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana a few days before. An unusual occurrence, the gathering lasted more than an hour and gave the crane advocates a chance to discuss the prevalence and severity of the issue directly with court representatives.  

“I did not feel they really understood the gravity of this crime and why so many people care about it,” Condon, who was in attendance, says. “They were comparing it to other wildlife violations that, while they should be taken seriously, are happening to other species that can easily repopulate themselves.”

In addition to the meeting, several of the groups were permitted to submit letters to the court in support of a tough sentence. Magistrate Carol Whitehurst emphasized that she read every letter, including those from Orleans Audubon, Audubon Louisiana, and the Louisiana Ornithological Society. “There are many people here who take this offense very seriously, and that includes me,” she said. Ultimately, however, she gave Aucoin the lenient sentence. 

Although Condon was disappointed by the outcome of the hearing, she hopes any headway made with the court will carry over to other shooting cases. “I think the silver lining is that we have started to develop a direct relationship with the justice system in that part of the country,” she says. “They need to help us, as they do with so many crimes, to create some deterrents so that this doesn’t happen in the future.”

The opportunity for a tougher sentence is not far off: Next month, the arraignment for yet another Whooping Crane shooting case is taking place. The defendant, a Louisiana man named Kaenon Constantin, allegedly shot and killed two Whooping Cranes in 2016. He is being tried under the Lacey Act, which prohibits the transport of endangered animals and is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Although few details about the case are publicly available, it represents the culmination of a 3-year investigation. 

Meanwhile, the ICF recently introduced 11 new chicks to the Louisiana flock. While they should help bolster the group's numbers, the fate of the young birds remains uncertain. “I actually went and saw the chicks,” Condon says. “It’s really sad to think that at least one of them is going to get shot. Statistically, probably two or three of them will get shot in the state of Louisiana.”

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