Two whooping cranes were shot in Jefferson County this week, and no matter which way you look at it, that's a lousy development.
Beaumont resident Trey Frederick, 18, was arrested Thursday because of a criminal complaint filed in federal court charging him with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
For one thing, whooping cranes are the types of creatures that the endangered species list was created for. Before people got in the way and started both hunting the whoopers (their feathers were popular accessories on hats and other clothing) and wiping out the whooping crane habitat of marshes and adjacent grasslands, it's believed there were more than 15,000 of the enormous birds in North America.
Those numbers dwindled to less than 1,400 in 1860. By 1941 there were only 15 whooping cranes left in the wild, the vestiges of a naturally migrating flock that has been moving between Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas for centuries. From there, conservationists started working to build up the flock, pushed lawmakers to pass legislation to protect the birds and started establishing other flocks across the country, with varying levels of success.There are now about 600 whoopers left in the world.
In 2011 a non-migratory flock was established in Louisiana with 10 young whoopers. The flock has grown to include about 30 birds. The two whoopers that were shot are reportedly from the Louisiana flock, according to the Associated Press.
Frederick appeared in federal court Thursday afternoon on the charges. According to information presented in court, on Monday a Texas game warden received two calls reporting two whooping cranes had been shot on Blair Road in Jefferson County, according to U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Davilyn Walston. Further investigation revealed the defendant had been seen in the area with a hunting rifle. He claimed to be hunting geese, which implies that he might have really overestimated the size of average wild goose. (While geese are roughly the size of large ducks, whooping cranes grow to be about five feet tall with a wingspan of more than seven feet.) Federal agents contacted Frederick at his home where he admitted to killing the cranes, according to Watson.
Whooping cranes are migratory birds and are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, making it unlawful to capture, kill, or attempt to capture or kill them in the United States. If convicted, Frederick faces up six months in federal prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
This isn't the first time whoopers have been shot, by any means. Over the past five years, more than 20 whooping cranes have been shot and killed in the United States, according to the International Crane Foundation. The latest shooting is troubling for a number of reasons, according to longtime environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn. The whooping cranes have already had enough setbacks over the years, he says.
Blackburn represented the Aransas Project over the death of 23 whooping cranes in 2008 and 2009 in the middle of the Texas drought. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to manage freshwater flows from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers to the birds’ Gulf Coast habitats that winter, which screwed up the whooping crane winter habitat and their food supply of blue crab and wolfberries. The case was fought all the way to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. (The Fifth declined to hear the case again and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case last year.)
Blackburn has studied other shootings and he says that in most instances it was just a case of mistaken bird identity. "Some people go hunting and they don't have a full range of what kinds of birds you can encounter, and what you can and can't shoot. This case is a little different though because I had no idea there were whooping cranes in that area and I'll bet the people hunting in the area didn't know either. If this had been around Rockport people know there are whooping cranes, but out here there's a very good chance this guy didn't know," Blackburn says.
He said that U.S. Fish and Wildlife and other government entities could help protect the whoopers if they made more of an effort to educate the hunting public and to let people know the whooping cranes are in certain areas. "On the one hand, we can't make these birds simply stay where we put them because if they want to fly away, they fly. But on the other hand there was a lot of money put into these birds, and that money is now gone. The real question this brings up is what can we do better? What can we learn from this?"