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$10,000 reward offered in whooping crane shooting

MILLER -- A reward of up to $10,000 has been offered for information that leads to the conviction of the person or persons responsible for the killing of a whooping crane near Miller last week.

The Whooping Crane Conservation Association offered the reward. The endangered bird was killed April 20 along 354th Avenue, approximately 17 miles southwest of Miller.

"The purpose of the reward is to encourage the public to share information they might have about criminal activities involving whooping cranes," according to Chester McConnell, of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association.

McConnell, who lives in Spanish Fort, Ala., said there are about 300 wild whooping cranes in the country. That flock travels from Texas to Canada each year.

The bird that was killed by Miller was a member of the flock. The birds travel in small groups of two to five.

"That's the reason we're very upset about this," McConnell said. "Those birds are precious. Those birds are worth a million dollars apiece. At least that."

There were only 14 of the cranes left in the 1950s, he said, from an estimated peak of 10,000 to 20,000 whooping cranes several hundred years ago.

The Whooping Crane Conservation Association is devoted to preserving the rare birds, McConnell said.

It spent $300,000 last year to buy habitat for the wild flock and has invested millions over the last 50 years in an effort to maintain and grow the population.

A new flock based in Wisconsin is being trained to fly to Florida, since birds need to be taught to migrate, he said. The whooping cranes follow ultra-light planes.

"They train them to fly down to Florida just by following the ultralights," McConnell said. "They fly back on their own then. There's about 100 in that flock now."

A non-migratory flock in Florida has about 20 birds, he said, and a new flock was started in Louisiana last year that has 11 birds.

They are a distinct-looking bird.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, McConnell said, standing about 5 feet tall but weighing just 30 pounds.

He said it's unclear why people shoot whooping cranes, especially since they are breaking a federal law by doing so.

"You don't know what the cause is. There's kids out there who will shoot at everything," McConnell said. "Some people will pot-shot an anything."

Others want it for a trophy, he said. And some don't want any cranes because they think they interfere with duck hunting, since whooping cranes have been known to eat ducklings.

McConnell said some hunters have confused the whooping cranes with sandhill cranes, he said, which are legal to shoot in some states. The South Dakota sandhill crane season is not open now.

There are hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes, he said. McConnell said some people, even experienced "birders," can confuse the two birds, especially at a distance.

The reward offer is designed to help find the shooter, he said.

Federal, state, local and other public law enforcement personnel, and criminal accomplices who turn state's evidence to avoid prosecution, are not eligible for this reward, according to a release from the association.

If more than one informant is key to solving a specific case, the reward will be equally divided between the informants. A reward has also been offered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the shooting of the whooping crane.

Law enforcement officers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks are investigating the shooting. The migrating adult whooping crane was traveling with two additional whooping cranes before being shot with a high-power rifle as it was standing in a corn field.

Anyone with information should call either the 24-hour "Turn in a Poacher Hotline" at 1-888-OVERBAG (683-7224) or the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at 605-224-9045 to report any information which will aid officers in the apprehension of the shooter. Callers can remain anonymous.

In the last two years, 11 whooping cranes of the experimental migratory Florida population and non-migratory Louisiana population have been shot, but this is the first wild whooping crane shot in several years, McConnell said.

Photo courtesy of Whooping Crane Conservation Association

Two of approximately 300 of the wild whooping cranes left in North America are pictured here. One of the federally protected birds was shot and killed near Miller on Friday.