On Tuesday, a 19-year-old man received his sentence in the case of two dead Whooping Cranes, marking a victory for the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this year, Trey Joseph Frederick from Beaumont, Texas pleaded guilty to shooting and killing two of the endangered birds near the Louisiana border, a misdemeanor under the act.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Zack Hawthorn sentenced Frederick to five years probation, during which time he’s not allowed to hunt, fish, or own firearms. The judge also ordered Frederick to serve 200 hours of community service, the most in the court’s history, with either the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and pay a $25,810 fine that will be divvied up between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation and the International Crane Foundation (ICF).
“This ruling has set a powerful precedent for the future of Whooping Crane conservation,” ICF president Rich Beilfuss wrote in a press release. “This was not hunting. This was an act of criminal vandalism.”
With successful prosecutions under the Endangered Species Act a rarity, the sentence is being championed as a victory for conservationists. But when the staggering cost of raising Whooping Cranes in captivity is considered, it might not be quite the victory that it appears.
Whooping Cranes are expensive. The price tag to raise and release just one bird from an egg can exceed $110,000. That money pays for food, housing, caretaking staff, and breeding—and for some birds, there’s also the cost of flight school. Before young birds are released to the wild to join a migratory flock, they go to Wisconsin, where they are trained to follow ultralight aircraft to prepare for fall migration—a process that isn’t cheap. (The two cranes killed by Frederick did not attend flight school; they were part of a non-migratory flock of 46 young cranes.)
Based on the costs of raising a single Whooping Crane to adulthood, the ICF proposed a fine of $113,886 per bird to the judge, a proposal that gained the support of the U.S. Probation Office. In comparison, the judge’s fine of $12,905 per bird is paltry. “The fine that he got was significant, but of course we would have liked to see something higher,” says Lizzie Condon, ICF’s outreach specialist. In the only other Endangered Species Act case in which a Whooping Crane was shot, a South Dakota man was forced to pay $85,000 in 2013.
More than the money, Condon is concerned about losing additional whoopers to gunfire. “In the most recent decade, there has been an alarming increase in the number of Whooping Crane shootings,” she says. Between 1967 (which was the year the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act) and 1999, there were only 5 documented shooting cases, Condon says. But in the past 5 years, more than 20 birds have been shot.
To better understand why shootings are on the rise, Condon surveyed Alabama residents to gauge the level of knowledge about the endangered birds. She found that people were completely unfamiliar with the bird and its status. “People in Alabama don’t know what Whooping Cranes are because they only started encountering them in 2004,” she says. “They didn’t know what they were, and we weren’t telling them. We’re working hard to try and change that.”
The problem, Condon says, is that in the past decade efforts to save the species from extinction became the primary concern, and raising awareness and public knowledge about Whooping Cranes fell behind. She wants the Whooping Crane to be viewed with the same respect and appreciation as the Bald Eagle, a bird with which no gunowner could claim unfamiliarity. To that end, the ICF reaches out to schools and hunting groups, displays billboards featuring the birds, and have released public service announcements on the radio.
As community outreach efforts continue, Condon says the ICF's main goal is to get the shootings down to a "sustainable level." That is to say, a level that current populations can handle. Shootings account for 19 percent of known mortality in eastern migratory Whooping Crane populations, and 24 percent of mortality in Louisiana non-migratory populations. Condon hopes to reach a day where shootings only account for 5 percent of known mortality, though even that number is still too much for her. “I don’t like saying that because, for me, shooting a Whooping Crane is never going to be acceptable," she says.