Game wardens are still investigating last month's shooting deaths of four whooping cranes near the Tom Steed Reservoir in Kiowa County.
Whooping cranes are endangered, with only about 500 of the birds in the wild in North America. It is the tallest bird in North America, standing about 5 feet tall.
On Dec. 15, an injured whooping crane was discovered near the southwestern Oklahoma lake by hunters who notified game wardens with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The whooping crane died while being transported to a veterinary clinic.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's forensics laboratory conducted a necropsy and determined the cause of death as a shotgun wound. A search of the area where the first bird was found led to finding three more dead whooping cranes.
Nathan Erdmann, chief of law enforcement for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said Thursday that game wardens are following up on leads.
"It is still under investigation," he said. "We are waiting on some search warrant information to come back."
Erdmann would not say whether investigators think the whooping cranes were mistaken as sandhill cranes by hunters or shot intentionally.
It is sandhill crane hunting season in Oklahoma. Two years ago, state wildlife officials temporarily closed sandhill crane hunting at Hackberry Flat when a whooping crane showed up on the wetland area with a group of sandhill cranes.
Sandhill cranes are gray, stand 3 to 4 feet tall with a wingspan of 5 to 6 feet. Whooping cranes are snowy white with black tips at either end of a 7- to 8-foot wingspan.
In Wisconsin, opponents of a state bill that would open a sandhill crane hunting season are pointing to the shooting deaths of the four whooping cranes in Oklahoma as why it should not be legalized.
Killing a whooping crane can lead to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine under the Endangered Species Act and another $15,000 with up to six months in jail under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, according to the Wildlife Department.
"We are angry and heartsick," said Rich Beilfuss, president and chief executive officer of the International Crane Foundation, headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
"The International Crane Foundation, along with many partners, has invested millions of dollars and decades of time and expertise to bring whooping cranes back from the brink of extinction. And in an instant four birds are gone forever."
Whooping cranes migrate through Oklahoma on their way to wintering grounds along the coastal marshes of south Texas, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
In the past, whooping cranes have been spotted at Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City, but their main migration path is primarily west of the Oklahoma City area through western Oklahoma.
Most whooping crane sightings in Oklahoma are reported from mid-October through November.
A long road of recovery
Whooping cranes were charter members of the Endangered Species Act when it was signed in 1973. They are endangered mainly as a result of habitat loss, but unregulated hunting in the early 1900s also contributed to their decline.
At one time, the range for the birds extended throughout midwestern North America. By 1941, there were less than 25 whooping cranes remaining in the wild and perhaps as few as 15.
By the year 2000, the population of whooping cranes had climbed to 180 birds through conservation efforts. Four years ago, a survey of the population of whooping cranes wintering in south Texas climbed to more than 500 for the first time since the late 1800s.
Growing the population is difficult because whooping cranes typically will have only two eggs per year. On average, only one chick will survive from that clutch.
Whooping cranes can live to be 20 to 25 years old, but they don’t mate until they are 7 years old, and the chicks and fledglings suffer high mortality on nesting grounds, according to the International Crane Foundation.
The four deaths in Oklahoma are the most whooping cranes ever killed at one time in a poaching incident, according to the foundation.
“We can’t bring back these four, but we can bring the perpetrators to justice," Beilfuss said in a prepared statement. "We can redouble our efforts to protect whooping cranes along their hazardous migration routes.
"We can expand our cooperative work with hunters and hunting groups to increase awareness of whooping crane presence. And we can continue to be the voice and act for whooping cranes on their wintering grounds in Texas and through reintroduction efforts.”
Game wardens now wearing body cameras
Oklahoma's 114 game wardens in the field are now equipped with body cameras.
The cameras are fully functioning smartphones using a software application from Visual Labs, a California software company. The device can also function as a digital camera, an audio recorder and a personnel locator.
"We have a phone contract with Firstnet, an AT&T service for first responders and that body camera is an app that is installed on that phone for Firstnet," Erdmann said.
"Basically, as soon as the video is taken and they have cell phone signal, it gets uploaded into a secure government cloud storage that we can access. As soon as it is uploaded I can watch it up here in the office (in Oklahoma City)."
Game wardens are instructed to use the cameras anytime they have interaction with the public, Erdmann said.
"It's not changing anything that we do," he said. "It's just adding protection for the wardens out in the field against false claims."
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This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma game wardens still investigating deaths of whooping cranes