Seven charged in whooping crane deaths

Seven central Kansans were charged in U.S. District Court on Wednesday in connection with the death of two whooping cranes last fall.

They told wildlife officials that they mistook the endangered cranes for legally hunted sandhill cranes on a Nov. 6 Stafford County goose and sandhill crane hunting trip.

The wounded birds were found by local farmers, and captured by wildlife officials. They eventually died while undergoing treatment.

Named in the case are:

• Michael L. Burke, 33, Great Bend

• Chad M. Churchill, 34, Ellinwood

• Kim Churchill, 53, Ellinwood

• Scott L. Hjetland, 33, Chase

• Ronald Laudick, 50, Hudson

• Mark S. Ricker, 33, Raymond

• Lonnie J. Winkleman, 33, Lyons

The defendants are scheduled to appear in U.S. district court at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 30. They face maximum penalties of up to six months in jail and a $15,000 fine.

The charges are under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which deals with the legal hunting and illegal killing of all migratory birds.

Initially officials said penalties could reach $100,000 and up to one year in jail under the Endangered Species Act.

" (Charges under) the endangered species act, in our opinion, would require an allegation be made that the hunters knew what they were killing was a species protected under the federal endangered species law," said Jim Cross, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren. "The charge we used is based on the fact that the hunters shot and killed the (protected) birds."

Kevin Jones, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks law enforcement director, said the federal judge could also prohibit the men from hunting in the future.

They could also face restitution charges, which could require them to repay the government for the costs of the investigation, or a formulated value of the dead whooping cranes.

Officials think there are fewer than 300 whooping cranes currently in the wild.

Sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts have been upset by the shooting.

Jim Kellenberger, a longtime hunter education instructor, said misidentification is not an excuse.

"We teach kids you never, ever, pull the trigger if you can't make 100 percent positive identification," Kellenberger said. "This was a horrendous thing."

Ron Klataske of Audubon of Kansas said he has mixed feelings on what the punishment should be.

"On one hand we would like to see the most severe penalty to discourage this kind of carelessness," he said. "But the human factor comes into play, and we have concern for the individuals involved if they really didn't intend to kill whooping cranes."

To decrease the chance of a similar mix-up in the future, Wildlife and Parks has increased efforts to educate hunters on the differences between sandhill cranes and whooping cranes.

The opening of the season has been slightly delayed this year, to give whooping cranes more time to migrate through Kansas.

Legal shooting hours have also been moved to a half-hour after sunrise to give hunters a better view of the birds.

It was the first known case of whooping cranes being shot by sandhill hunters in modern history.

BY MICHAEL PEARCE

The Wichita Eagle