Poaching of Louisiana’s Whooping Crane Population Carries Jail Time, Significant Fines
story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Though tremendous strides have been made in Louisiana’s whooping crane reintroduction project, significant challenges remain. None is bigger than the purposeful, illegal shooting of the birds, which are protected by state and federal laws.
Although some mortality was expected, of the 102 whooping cranes released since the project’s 2011 inception, only 57 cranes remain. What’s troubling, however, is that 10, possibly 11, of the birds were shot and killed
“Shootings account for more than 20 percent of our mortality,’’ said Sara Zimorski, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist who leads the whooping crane project. “If that continues, this won’t be sustainable. That’s the biggest challenge.’’
Zimorski and LDWF Enforcement Agent Capt. Bobby Buatt, based out of the Lake Charles office, said the shootings are indiscriminate. Some have simply been teenagers out shooting for the fun of it in the coastal prairie region of southwest Louisiana. They may not realize the birds, which can grow to 5 feet in height and have a 7-8 foot wingspan, are protected by state and federal laws.
“You have some people without any forethought riding around these back country roads just shooting,’’ Buatt said. “That’s the problem we face. And they shoot the whooping cranes. Unless there is a witness in the area, these cases can be very, very difficult to solve. We have issued some citations where people have shot over the birds trying to get them off crawfish ponds. We’ve had some shot like that.
“But we’re committed to fully investigating and solving these cases. We have some cases pending in federal court and the penalties are steep. Individuals who shoot these birds may not know what they’re shooting at. That presents a problem. I know the (LDWF) staff at White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area has gone around to the schools to introduce students and teachers to our program. That can play a vital role in deterring the shootings.’’
Federal laws governing the shooting of whooping cranes are severe. They carry a fine of up to $50,000 or a year in prison or both.
In October of 2016, a southeast Texas man was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay nearly $26,000 in restitution for killing two endangered whooping cranes from the Louisiana population.
Trey Joseph Frederick, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of shooting a whooping crane under the Endangered Species Act, was sentenced by a federal magistrate in Beaumont, Texas. In addition to probation and the fine, Frederick, 19, is prohibited from possessing firearms and cannot hunt or fish in the United States for five years. He must also perform 200 hours of community service.
The cranes were found dead in Jefferson County, located in southeast Texas, on Jan. 11, 2016. These birds, a male and female, were almost 2 years old.
Buatt said LDWF enforcement agents in southwest Louisiana have taken a proactive approach to protecting the whooping cranes. They keep tabs on the birds and the areas where they’re nesting and foraging.
“Every week, whooping crane staff at White Lake sends me the GPS locations of the birds,’’ Buatt said. “I distribute that to all the agents in the region and tell them to actively patrol these areas. We want to be seen, talk to people and tell them to keep an eye out for them. We’ve tried to do some outreach in the areas where these birds are located so people will pay attention.
“Some people may be driving down the road and not know what is out there, not notice the birds or not realize what they’re seeing. When they see suspicious activity, they don’t put two and two together.’’
Zimorski said Louisiana isn’t the only place where shootings are a problem and whooping cranes aren’t the only species targeted by those out with nothing better to do.
“It’s a challenging problem for any of the projects and anybody who works with the cranes,’’ Zimorski said. “Part of the solution is changing the culture and attitude. It’s important for parents to teach their kids that it’s not okay to poach and indiscriminately shoot at anything that moves. And if you do there is a big price to be paid.’’
Anyone witnessing suspicious activity involving whooping cranes is advised to report that information to LDWF’s Enforcement Division by calling 1-800-442-2511 or using the tip411 program, which may offer a cash reward for information leading to arrests or convictions. To use the tip411 program, citizens can text LADWF and their tip to 847411 or download the “LADWF Tips” iPhone app from the Apple iTunes store free of charge. Citizen Observer, the tip411 provider, uses technology that removes all identifying information before LDWF receives the text so that LDWF cannot identify the sender.
Buatt said during office hours that citizens can also call the Lake Charles LDWF Enforcement Office at 337-491-2580 to report potential crimes.
“Louisiana has always been about protecting our resources and our wildlife,’’ Buatt said. “With our persistence and dedication, I don’t see how we’re going to fail. We are certainly going to do everything in our power to protect these birds.’’
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