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7 Fined for Killing Rare Birds

BY MICHAEL PEARCE
Reprinted from The Wichita Eagle, October 1, 2005


Seven Kansas hunters were fined $3,000 each in U.S. District Court on Friday for last fall's killing of two endangered whooping cranes. According to the terms of their plea agreements, they also had their hunting privileges suspended for two years and must pass a state-approved hunter education course within the next year.

The seven men are also required to perform 50 hours of community service each. That service will be administered by the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Kenny Kessler and Phil Kirkland, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks natural resource officer, said the men cooperated during the investigation.

None of the men had previous wildlife-related violations.
Sentenced were Michael L. Burke, 33, of Great Bend; Chad M. Churchill, 34, of Ellinwood; Kim Churchill, 53, of Ellinwood; Scott L. Hjetland, 33, of Chase; Ronald Laudick, 50, of Hudson; Mark S. Ricker, 33, of Raymond; and Lonnie J. Winkleman, 33, of Lyons.

As a group, they also must pay $2,586.75 in restitution, which is the cost of veterinary care for attempting to save the injured cranes.

The men were charged with illegally killing a protected migratory bird, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of $15,000 and six months in jail. The Kansas shooting occurred Nov. 6 in Stafford County, while the men were legally hunting sandhill cranes and geese. Kessler said the men mistook the whoopers for sandhill cranes under poor light conditions during the early morning.

The wounded birds were discovered on neighboring properties later that day. One died at Kansas State University's Veterinary Hospital, the other at a Maryland crane research facility about a month later.

It was the first case of a whooping crane being shot by legal sandhill crane hunters in the United States and the first known whoopers shot in Kansas. The shooting drew worldwide media attention, and word of the penalties spread quickly to whooping crane fans on Friday.

"I was hoping for more than what transpired," said Tom Stehn, the Fish and Wildlife Service's whooping crane coordinator. "The frustrating thing is, these birds are irreplaceable. But no court action's going to bring the birds back."

Stehn said the federal agency invests about $165,000 in each captive-raised whooping crane chick they introduce into a fall migration. The killed birds were believed to be wild-hatched birds, making their way from Canada to south Texas.
Stehn, based at the bird's Texas wintering grounds, is expecting about 235 wild whoopers to migrate south this fall. That's a record high, up from about 70 in 1982, and 217 last December.

Last fall's shooting brought changes in this year's sandhill crane season in Kansas, including a later starting date and later start of legal shooting hours. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks is also stepping up its education program to help hunters distinguish whoopers from sandhill cranes.

"Hopefully we're on the right track," Stehn said. "These birds are so danged valuable, and so many people care so much about them."


Reach Eagle outdoors writer Michael Pearce at mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.
 

 

 

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