Oklahoma whooping crane shootings ‘unprecedented’

Oklahoma Game Warden Jeremy Brothers approaches the injured whooping crane that later died due to its injuries. (Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation photo)

For the CCOF

The recent shootings of four rare whooping cranes in Oklahoma is unprecedented and will come with consequences, officials say.

“It’s unprecedented because it’s a first for Oklahoma and more cranes were killed in this shooting than in any other single incident,” said Elizabeth Smith, North America program director for the International Crane Foundation.

The Crane Foundation has documented only 34 shootings since the birds were first listed as a federally endangered species in 1967. The last shooting of a migrating Aransas-Wood Buffalo Population whooping crane was in 2013.

Shootings typically involve poachers or people who simply don’t know anything about the birds, Smith said.

Sandhill crane season was open in the Tom Steed Lake area when these birds were shot. That said, hunters rarely mistake the large, white whooping crane for the legal game, she said. Guilty hunters have shot birds during hours when visibility was poor (which is illegal) or had a history of poaching.

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers are doing well in their pursuit of the Kiowa County case, said Lt. Col. Wade Farrar, Assistant Chief of Law Enforcement with the Wildlife Department.

“I would say there is about a 99.9% chance that in the next 10 to 14 days we will know who did it,” he said.

He doubts the poachers will turn themselves in, but said a part of him still wishes that would happen.

“If it’s a mistake you call and say, ‘hey, we messed up,’” he said. “But they’ve had six weeks to do that.”

Reward announcement coming

Wednesday the Wildlife Department issued a public request for tips on the shooting. People have called with some tips, and others, including groups like the Crane Foundation, are contributing to a reward. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce an amount soon, Farrar said.

“We are angry and heartsick,” said Crane Foundation President and CEO Rich Beilfuss. “The International Crane Foundation, along with many partners, has invested millions of dollars and decades of time and expertise to bring whooping cranes back from the brink of extinction. And in an instant four birds are gone forever.”

Farrar said a large reward often brings people forward.

“We’re going to have a good case, but we’d love to get the trophy photo of these guys with the birds and put the nail in the coffin on this thing,” he said.

Whooping cranes are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. A conviction for killing a whooping crane can carry up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine per person under the Endangered Species Act, and up to six months in jail and a $15,000 fine under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

How did this happen?

The bird with the injured wing apparently sailed off to another field when the four were shot on Nov. 5. Hunters in the area reported the wounded bird to wardens.

“It looked like blunt force trauma that broke a wing and we first suspected it was a power line collision,” Farrar said. “The bird died in transit and with the necropsy, the veterinarian told us it was shot. I was beside myself.”

More tips and a search by wardens turned up the remaining three carcasses within a mile of the wounded bird. One of the cranes was wearing a GPS tracking device, he said.

When wardens are alerted to the presence of whooping cranes on a public hunting area the area is closed to hunting until the birds leave, he said. The areas around Tom Steed are not as wide-open as some other areas so the birds might not have been seen. They also might have just arrived, he said.

“That same day we had four whooping cranes on the mudflats down at Altus-Lugert (Wildlife Management Area) and one of my green jeans was down there keeping an eye on them,” he said. “That’s the protocol.”

Anyone with information regarding the deaths of these whooping cranes is asked to contact the Wildlife Department’s Operation Game Thief at (918) 331-5555 or the USFWS’ Office of Law Enforcement in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 334-5202. Callers with information may remain anonymous.

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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