Whooping Cranes found dead in Kentucky; at least 12 eastern birds have now been shot

1/15/2014 | 1

Kentucky whooping cranes

Whooping Cranes 33-07 and 05-09 in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Thousand/International Crane Foundation

The senseless killing of endangered Whooping Cranes continues.

This morning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that two adult Whooping Cranes had been shot in November in western Kentucky. They were a mated pair: a six-year-old male known as 33-07 and a four-year-old female known as 5-09. The birds were killed by a rifle. They had spent the last two winters in Hopkins County, Kentucky, the same location where they were shot.

Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for FWS, said the delay in reporting the shootings occurred because the agency had been waiting for a lab in Oregon to confirm that the birds had been shot. “We didn’t know for sure they had been shot,” he said. “It took a little while to get the results.”

A reward for information about the killings will be offered shortly. Joe Duff, co-founder of Operation Migration, said his organization had pledged $1,000 to the reward; other conservation groups are expected to contribute as well.

The pair had nested unsuccessfully in central Wisconsin for the last three years.

The female was found before Thanksgiving and taken to a rehabilitation center for surgery; she was later euthanized. The carcass of the male was found nearby; it had been picked over by scavengers.

The shooter “wasn’t a hunter,” Duff said. “It’s thrill killing or wanton waste.” Bullet fragments from a .22-caliber rifle were found in the female; a hunter would have used a shotgun, officials said. The killings occurred a couple weeks before Kentucky’s controversial Sandhill Crane hunting season opened.

The birds are not the same pair that migrated in November from Wisconsin to Kentucky with a juvenile crane in tow. The youngster had been raised in an experiment with captive adult cranes and released with a pair of wild adults at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. The three are spending the winter in western Kentucky.

Despite the trio’s relatively close proximity to the location of the shooting, Anne Lacy, crane research coordinator for the International Crane Foundation, said recovery officials “are no more worried about those birds than we are about any of the other birds in the population.”

The latest shootings bring to 15* the number of Whooping Cranes that are known to have been shot in the eastern states since 2009. Three birds were shot in Indiana; three were shot in Louisiana; three more were shot in Georgia; and four, probably five, were shot in Alabama.

A crane from the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population was also shot in South Dakota in April 2012.

At least 20 other cranes in the eastern migratory population have disappeared over the years and are presumed dead. Lacy said it’s possible some were shot as well.

The penalty for shooting a Whooping Crane can be as much as $100,000 and a year in jail. The South Dakota shooting brought an $85,000 fine, but the shooter of one of the Indiana birds was fined only $1.

Lamenting the string of shooting incidents, Duff said, “I don’t know what to do.” — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

*An earlier version of this post said the number of poached cranes was 12; I had neglected to list the three deaths in Georgia.