INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The recent fatal shooting of an endangered whooping crane in rural Indiana is a sad reminder of the threat gunfire poses to North America's tallest birds as the rare species recovers from a brush with extinction, wildlife officials say.
A 5-year-old female was found shot to death in early January near the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area, a wetland-filled state property in southwestern Indiana that the bright-white, long-legged wading birds visit each winter while migrating.
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Initial findings suggest the crane was killed by a high-powered rifle, said Tina Shaw, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its carcass is being studied at the agency's forensic lab in Oregon for the investigation into its death.
Since 2009, four other whooping cranes have been fatally shot in Indiana. That's the most shooting deaths in any state among the eastern migratory population of whooping cranes painstakingly reintroduced over some 15 years by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Crane Foundation and other groups.
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The crane killed in Indiana had just reached breeding age and hopes were high that it would successfully raise a chick this year after the chick it hatched last year in Wisconsin died just before being able to fly, said Lizzie Condon, whooping crane outreach coordinator for the Baraboo, Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation.
"With a population that's struggling to become self-sustaining, to lose a breeding female is particularly devastating. It's really tough," she said.
Whooping cranes, which stand over 5 feet tall, were never abundant. Hunting and habitat loss decimated the species by the early 1940s, when fewer than 20 birds remained. They were survivors among the species' sole remaining wild migratory population, which breeds in Canada and winters along the Texas coast.
All of the roughly 600 whooping cranes alive today are descendants of those birds. About 300 are part of the Canada-Texas migrating population, while 200 others are either in captivity or live in non-migratory flocks in Florida and Louisiana.
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The eastern population of cranes, now numbering about 100, was reintroduced starting in 2001 to serve as an "insurance policy" in the event a natural disaster or disease strikes the wild migratory population, said Wade Harrell, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's whooping crane recovery coordinator.
The eastern birds, which migrate each year between the Upper Midwest and the Southeast, were hatched and reared by humans and until last year were guided during their migration by ultralight aircraft.
Less than half of the whooping cranes released into the eastern migratory population have survived over the long term, with more than 120 recorded deaths among their ranks. The cause of death could be determined for about 40 percent of those birds. About half of those were killed by predators such as bobcats; one-fifth died from gunfire; another fifth died from collisions with power lines and other structures; and about 10 percent died from disease.
Harrell said it's unclear why Indiana has had so many fatal whooping crane shootings. But he said the fact that Indiana appears to harbor more of the eastern cranes during the winter than any other state may have played a role. Also, he said, some of the cranes' Indiana wintering spots are close to populated areas.
Since 1967, when the birds were declared federally endangered, there have been 38 known fatal shootings of whooping cranes across the species' range, which spans 11 U.S. states and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
Harrell said the Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners in the whooping crane recovery effort have worked for years to educate the public about the rare birds, the government protections that came with their federal endangered status and why they must not be harmed.
"It's a never-ending task," he said. "There's always that segment of the public that you can't really reach with outreach efforts. And for whatever, reason they're going to do what they're going to do."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Crane Foundation and other groups are offering a $6,500 reward for information leading to a conviction in the Indiana crane killing.
Nathan Lutz, an Indiana conservation officer, said there are few leads in the shooting. He said that while it was duck and goose hunting season when the shooting happened, it's extremely unlikely a licensed hunter killed the crane "because they are such a distinctive bird."
"Everything in our investigation is pointing to this being intentional," he said.