A whooping crane recently shot in South Dakota may be one of the famous Lobstick cranes that nest north of Wood Buffalo National Park, according to a Fort Smith man.
Ronnie Schaefer, who has observed the cranes for many years, told Northern Journal he believes the crane shot en route to Canada is one of the Lobstick pair. The pair has made the Fox Hole prairie on Salt River First Nation land home for 19 years, usually arriving in the first two weeks of May. They have not arrived yet.
Another reason Schaefer believes it may be one of the Lobstick birds is because they are not tagged. Although not confirmed, it is believed by Parks Canada that the crane shot in South Dakota was likewise not tagged. Schaefer said he is trying to clarify that, but so far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which is investigating the shooting, has been tight-lipped about the case.
Brad Merrill, a spokesperson for FWS Mountain-Prairie Region, said it is FWS policy not to discuss cases still under investigation. He did confirm that the crane was travelling with another adult and a juvenile, both of which were seen in the same corn field where the shooting occurred. What happened to the other cranes is unknown.
“It’s a big loss for us because they’re a recognized pair from here to Aransas,” Schaefer said.
The Fox Hole prairie is the traditional nesting ground for another pair of whooping cranes, which Schaefer said has already arrived and settled in. A new nesting pair has also settled in the area, but Schaefer noted it is not the Lobstick pair.
Others believe it is too early to tell for sure if the killed bird was indeed one of the famous cranes.
“That would be really tough to deduce based on what we know,” Dan Alonzo, refuge manager at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, told The Journal.
Chester McConnell, trustee emeritus at the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, told The Journal it would be a great loss should the shot crane be one of the Lobstick pair.
“It would be, but I’m not certain (Schaefer) would be correct on that. I don’t know what information he has, but the cranes haven’t been long settling in and some of them would take a little while to settle into nesting,” McConnell said.
According to McConnell, whooping cranes do not all fly in and start building nests right away. Though their time to nest is short, they are known to “fool around.”
With only about 300 whooping cranes migrating between Wood Buffalo National Park and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, the loss of any of the endangered birds is significant, Alonzo said. There are approximately 500 whooping cranes left in the world.
“It would be the equivalent to the loss of any other bird,” Alonzo said. “Any loss is significant. We want to do anything to deter that. The Lobstick or any other pair is just as important.”
One death of many
The shooting of the whooping crane in South Dakota is the latest in a dozen confirmed shootings of the species since 1951. Approximately 80 whooping cranes of the western migratory flock have also gone missing during that time, their fates unknown, McConnell said.
Cranes that do not die of natural causes are most likely to be killed flying into power lines or electrified fences, he said, but some people shoot the birds out of malice.
The eastern migratory and non-migratory Louisiana populations suffer even more from human predation. McConnell noted 11 cranes in the eastern and Louisiana populations have been shot in the last two years. Many of those cases are still unsolved. The most recent incident prior to the April 20 shooting in South Dakota was the January 2012 shooting of a male whooping crane in Knox County, Indiana. The crane was spotlighted and shot, according to FWS. Charges are pending against two men in their early twenties.