The Price of a Whooping Crane
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.
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.