South Dakotan Jeff Blachford, 26, has been handed a stiff sentence that includes $85,000 in restitution and two years of probation for violating the Federal Endangered Species Act after shooting and killing an endangered whooping crane, reports Wildlife Extra. He will also be required to surrender his firearms, as well as be prohibited from hunting, fishing or trapping within the U.S. for the next two years.
The penalties have been applauded by officials with the International Crane Foundation, who hope that the sentencing will make reckless hunters across the country think twice before setting their sights on an endangered species.
"Today, hunters and other citizens are receiving a clear message that there is a real price to shooting an endangered species," said Dr. Richard Beilfuss, president and CEO of the International Crane Foundation.
The sentence helps to set a harsher precedent for killing a whooping crane, as some previous cases in other states have resulted in milder fines. For instance, an Indiana case in 2009 resulted in a mere $1 fine. Another case in Texas in 2004 carried a heartier fine of $10,000, but which is still a far cry from the $85,000 charged in this most recent case.
The whooping crane that Blachford killed was one of only about 300 individuals remaining in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population, which is the only self-sustaining concentration of wild whooping cranes left in the world. The total world population of whooping cranes, including wild and captive birds, stands at only 599.
The species was brought back from the brink of extinction after unregulated hunting of the large wading birds reduced the world population down to just 23 individuals in 1941. The whooping crane's recovery is a testament to the efforts of conservation groups, and speaks to the importance of legislation like the Endangered Species Act.
"Wildlife is an important resource to the people of South Dakota. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, and the sentence handed down today for the senseless killing of a whooping crane, one of the rarest birds in the world, is a prime example of the enforcement of that law," said Brendan V. Johnson, the prosecuting attorney in the case. "The Department of Justice works hand in hand with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and takes the killing of endangered species very seriously. Let this case serve as notice to anyone who thinks otherwise."
The restitution money from the case will be managed by the International Crane Foundation in recognition of their work in helping to conserve this precious American species.
The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America, standing up to about 5 feet in height. They also have a magnificent wingspan of about 7.5 feet in length, and get their name from their distinctive, "whooping" calls which can carry over a distance of several kilometers.
Conservationists with Operation Migration have famously trained some whooping cranes to follow ultralight aircraft in order to help them re-establish their historical migration routes.
Related on MNN: 9 endangered animals of the Southeast, including the whooping crane