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The Price of a Whooping Crane

April 22, 2011

Whooping Cranes are in the news, and not necessarily because of their slow return to boreal Canada where the unlikely conservation success stories will go about raising another precious generation of critically endangered chicks.

Birders may or may not have been aware of the series of unfortunate incidences surrounding the eastern population of Whooping Cranes, that graceful white giant that, along with the California Condor, is the poster child  of active endangered species management in the latter part of the 20th Century.  From a low point of 21 birds, the population grew to nearly 500 in two populations, the last lingering wild group of birds famous for wintering at Aransas NWR in Texas, and a second introduced population that migrates between Florida and Wisconsin. Whoopers are far from out of the woods, but their current situation is a significant improvement and it’s a testimony to the hard work of those in the Fish and Wildlife Service that they’re removed from the brink.

With all the time and effort that has gone into the reclamation of the Whooping Crane population, you might get the impression that this is a valuable bird and you’d be right in strictly monetary terms  The FWS has spent on the order of $6.1 million annually on Whooping Crane recovery.  Given the long lifespan of the birds, their low recruitment, and the fact that it takes nearly 10 years to build a population of 100 individual birds, we’re looking at an estimated outlay of something on the order of $126 million through 2035, according to published budgets.  You would be justified in setting the cost of a single Whooping Crane, at minimum, at just over $12,000 per year.

Perhaps it’s not appropriate to think of the birds like that.  After all,  the population of Whoopers is more important than any individual.  But when the number of individual birds is so low it’s impossible to deny that the loss of any one bird, by natural or unnatural means, resonates in ways quantifiable and not.   Worth isn’t just something quantifiable, it’s the knowledge that the Whopping Crane exists somewhere.  It’s the adrenaline shivering through your veins at the sight of a line of massive white birds rising over a Kansas horizon, or dancing on a Texas saltmarsh.  It’s both subjective and objective in different measures, but the bottom line is that it matters.

The last few years have been particularly rough for Whooping Cranes in the eastern population.  Nearly twenty young birds died in Northern Florida in 2007 due to a bad storm.  Three were shot in late 2010 in Albany County, Georgia and two more in Alabama this past February.  And in 2009,  two kids shot a Whooping Crane in southern Indiana.  They were turned in by an acquaintance and charged with unlawful take of an endangered species, a class 3 felony punishable with imprisonment up to 20 years and a $100,000 fine.  USFWS came prepared to prosecute, but the US District Attorney for Southern Indiana declined to charge them.

Instead, they were each given probation and fined only $1.

I admit I’ve gone round and round on how I feel about this. The initial reaction was anger and disgust, precisely the sort of reaction that makes for cathartic blog posts.  But now that I’ve sat on it for a couple days,  I’m having a hard time getting worked up about this anymore. Instead of anger, I just feel a profound disappointment.

Maybe I’m mellowing in my old(er) age (I doubt it,  I can still get fired up about baseball), but more likely my clean-burning rage reservoir has finally run dry, replaced instead by less-efficient and ultimately more harmful cynicism in response to the broader environmental issues that in the past would have me foaming at the mouth.  You know, the ongoing assault on environmental rules and regulations and the continuing decline of bird populations continent-wide.  The usual stuff.  Ho-hum.

So I’m less angry about the lean punishment doled out by the judge in response to these two dumb and probably misguided kids.  I don’t know their situation, but I suspect a significant fine levied against would have been ultimately fruitless.  They made a tragic mistake borne of ignorance of a law they’d probably never even heard of.  But there’s a lot I don’t know.  Is this a first offense?  Do they have hunting licenses otherwise?  Do they volunteer?  I’d hate to be judged by the actions and mistakes of my 18 year old self.  So even though the kid named in the affidavit looks like a grade A asshole, I guess I can sympathize.  Because ultimately he’s just another stupid kid.  Hey, I never said I wasn’t a bleeding heart.

But that said, I think there’s a greater issue to be concerned about here.  One for whom the blame can be shared equally by the US Attorney’s office and the state judge.  By choosing not to abide by precedent when dealing with Endangered Species Act violations, the judge shows a patent disregard for what is one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in this nation’s history.  Tossing it off with scarcely an acknowledgment, or even a clear understanding, of the magnitude of the crime is disrespectful to those of us who do, in fact, take this seriously and care about the protections afforded under the ESA and the Migratory Birds Treaty Act.  Because ultimately, those laws are only as good as the judges that enforce them, and if judges refuse to enforce stated law than the Endangered Species list is wounded.  It is no longer a means by which species in danger of extinction can gain the protection needed.  This is precedent.  It resonates.  Now, it affects every Whooping Crane.

Whether or not this worry is founded is the sort of thing we’ll only see down the line, but in the end, it’s frustrating that there’s really no better way to correctly appraise the value of an endangered species like these Whooping Cranes.   What’s clear, though, is that the price of a Whooping Crane shouldn’t be set by those with an obviously incomplete sense of their worth.

  1. April 22, 2011 9:15 am

    Nate, thanks for your cogent thoughts on this very important subject on Earth Day. The laws can be put in place but the ignorance and irresponsibility of those charged with enforcing them is rampant worldwide regarding endangered species. The tiger is losing its battle on this planet because rangers in India can be bought off by poachers. What, as you point out, is an animal worth? The tiger, the Whooping Crane and all the others on the brink are simply priceless. As William Beebe said it will take another heaven and another earth to see their like again when they are gone. We just need to keep ringing these issues up and change peoples minds and actions one at a time.
    Here’s to you Nate on Earth Day!

  2. April 22, 2011 1:04 pm

    I also wanted to add that George Archibald who was one of the founders of the International Crane Foundation worked tirelessly to bring the Whooping Crane back from extinction and continues to travel the globe to save the 9 species of these stunning cranes, one of the oldest species on earth.

  3. Julia Anthony permalink
    April 22, 2011 4:16 pm

    Nate left out some numbers in his calculations. Please also consider: The number of eco-tourist dollars accrued. The number of acres of land put into protection. The amount of insect larva eaten. The number of good stories in international news. Etc.

    I too am disappointed in this case. These birds are a national treasure. Everyone involved should be treating these incidences as if someone broke into the Smithsonian and an artifact. If we don’t keep vigilant, fight every fight and protest every injustice then one day we may only have artifacts left.

  4. April 22, 2011 7:45 pm

    “…ultimately, those laws are only as good as the judges that enforce them, and if judges refuse to enforce stated law than the Endangered Species list is wounded. It is no longer a means by which species in danger of extinction can gain the protection needed. This is precedent. It resonates. Now, it affects every Whooping Crane.”

    beautifully said Nate! …like you, I haven’t seen enough details of the case to know what factors may have mitigated a light sentence for these offenders… what reasoning the judge employed; but even if such reasons existed, the problem is that the ruling indeed “resonates” farther out beyond these 2 scofflaws to a larger ignorant audience who will only see the headlines of a $1 fine and give a shrug; no lesson learned.

  5. April 23, 2011 10:47 am

    I am very disappointed in the result of this case. It’s not so much the lightness of the sentence (given that one was a juvenile and the other a young adult, it’s possible that there were mitigating factors), but that the U.S. Attorney declined to file charges for violations of the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If the federal government won’t protect a large, charismatic species like the Whooping Crane, what can the less charismatic species expect?

  6. Nate permalink*
    April 26, 2011 8:26 am

    @Jane- Thanks, I couldn’t agree more.

    @Julia- Excellent points. I was trying to put a quantitative dollar amount placed on one Whopping Crane, but obviously couldn’t include less tangible things which are, of course, priceless.

    @cyberthrush- Yeah, to some extent I can sympathize with the plight of two ignorant kids who probably didn’t know what they were doing, but the precedent set is worrying indeed.

    @John- Nail on the head. Every verdict has ramifications and I fear for the cover it provides judges out west, for instance, who are constantly mediating the war between endangered species and other interests.

  7. Mort permalink
    April 26, 2011 9:29 am

    Thank you Nate. I believe that as long as people like yourself keep spreading the word, we will see the number of incidents like the one in Indiana decrease. Educating the public must be a priority. I am hopeful when I look at my own community. I see our children being exposed more at school, more programs at local state and federal lands, and even hunter education yielding more responsible and aware youth.
    “With all the time and effort that has gone into the reclamation of the Whooping Crane population, you might get the impression that this is a valuable bird and you’d be right in strictly monetary terms” and “Perhaps it’s not appropriate to think of the birds like that. After all, the population of Whoopers is more important than any individual.” are statements that really hit home with me. I hope all of us value EVERY species in the world around us for the important roles they play. I fear though, that the monetary value of whooping cranes has been driven up by some of the groups outside the USFWS exploiting the whooping cranes for personal gain. I find this behavior almost as criminal as groups grab for money to stay involved when history shows it is just bad science. Greed and pride are not criminal, but they deserve our disapproval especially when they hinder such a magnificent creature as the whooping crane.

  8. April 26, 2011 4:43 pm

    For those who haven’t seen it the district attorney in Indiana who is involved (and under pressure) has issued a statement further clarifying the decision in this case:

    …seems a bit lame to me, but I’m not a lawyer… as to the question of a recipient for restitution I would think that Operation Migration, (or possibly just the USFWS), given how much time and money they expend on each bird, would have some standing there, but again, I’m just shootin’ from the hip….

  9. April 26, 2011 6:57 pm

    I published a short comment and a podcast not long after these ‘kids’ killed this Whooping crane in November of 2009. I no longer publish about the Whoopers; it was always a niche podcast, with a limited audience (though larger than many I have learned since) though I occasionally work with the Endangered Species Coalition.

    I can’t agree with Nate’s apathy about dealing with these kids; they are adults and the nature of their crime and what it represented… a loss to future generations and a disrespect to nature… is typically not taught nor impressed on our youth nor anyone else. Our very government is doing nothing to fulfill the promises it made to the people of the Gulf, and the president is likewise more concerned about his downturn in popularity and slim chances of being re-elected. What happened to his promise to stand by the people of the Gulf? To insure that BP pays all that is due, and make things right again? Media attention has long been diverted, but animals continue to die and oil is definitely in the marshes and remains in our waters!

    If we fail to show our children the right and wrong in our world, they will only continue to follow the misguided paths many of us have created. While it may be ‘do as I say, not as I did’, how will they know unless someone tells them and even enforces our laws upon them? A law should apply equally to all members of any society, and neither youth, because of their ‘naivety’, nor the wealthy should have extended circumstances or ‘get off’ so easily. No lesson can be learned from that.

    The case of the Whooping cranes is one of the love, toil and sweat many dedicated people have endured and devoted in recent years. If our laws are not enforced, then this effort and all the safeguards that were instituted to insure their future and proliferation fail. The sad thing is, both our judicial and governmental system have failed all of us in this country, and these are the main reasons that big corporate America has dominated our world and made it what it is today.

    The future for all our endangered species is a bleak one, and with public support and our government what it is, especially recent degradation to the Endangered Species Act which rode the wave with legislation to pass a federal budget cut, many protections that were in place will soon be gone. States alone cannot solve these problems, as the Federal Government has been entrusted to make such protective legislation work and enforce what we once called ‘the will of the people’. But when our government fails to do as we have empowered it to, that trust is betrayed.

    Each year, ‘America the Beautiful’ is becoming ‘America the Less Than Bountiful’. That trust we have empowered must be restored, for it ultimately affects not just the gray wolves and Whooping cranes, but each and every one of us. Think about this when you add that mere $20 worth of gas to your car this week! Who is really in control of America and if ‘We the People’ are supposed to be in charge, how do we make America strong and a positive world force once again?

  10. May 1, 2011 10:29 am

    The $1 fine was an insult. What statement was the judge trying to make? Couldn’t he at least assign them several hours community service?

  11. May 2, 2011 9:04 am

    Joe Duff has an excellent and eloquent commentary in the Operation Migration Field Journal. “ALL FOR A BUCK”
    Here’s an excerpt: “Now for a buck you get to legally shoot a Whooping crane and snub your nose at the laws designed to protect it. Your dollar can buy the fifteen years of experimentation that it took to develop a technique for teaching birds to migrate. For your small fee you can negate all the lobbying that was needed to put the permits in place, and the years of work to raise that bird from an egg and prepare it for release into the wild. For one dollar you get to kill one of only 405 that exist in the wild and hold up the dead carcass of a creature whose lineage extends back sixty million years.”
    See for more

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