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Whooping Cranes Killed in Texas - What Comes Next?

Updated on February 29, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Whooping Crane

Juvenile Whooping Crane with rusty colored feathers.
Juvenile Whooping Crane with rusty colored feathers. | Source

East Texas, between Beaumont and Houston, is a large forested area dotted with small communities, ranches and farms. In that rural culture, subsistence hunting is common. People have hunted and fished, making their own groceries (local term that crosses into Louisiana) for generations. Such a culture is likely what an 18 year-old named Trey Joseph Frederick grew up with.

According to his Facebook page, Frederick loves fishing and hunting, as seen in this picture from his news celebrity Facebook page. He received his first gun at the age of six. He aspires to be a world champion duck caller.

In the About section of his page, Frederick wrote, “I love to hunt, I also love to fish tournaments, I am on Hamshire Fannets fishing team; and I love the outdoors more than anything!” His favorite quote is, “If it flies, it dies,” a slogan popularized by the clothing brand “Rowdy Gentlemen.” He doesn't sound like a bad kid.

Yet, somewhere along the way, he appears to have missed some of the important hunter’s training that Texas is serious about. Not only is gun safety and training a big deal here, but if you hunt, so are the laws of the hunt and conservation knowledge. This statement is mostly conjecture and assumption on my part when talking about Trey Joseph Frederick.

I don’t know him, or his family, but I do know this area and the culture. If you have heard the news about Trey in the early days of his arrest, then you have caught some conflicting information and a lot of anger and alarm over the situation. Here are the facts and other information concerning this young man, his running afoul of Texas and Federal hunting laws and what he may face in the future.


Trey Joseph Frederick

Trey Joseph Frederick - Photo from Facebook news celebrity page.
Trey Joseph Frederick - Photo from Facebook news celebrity page. | Source
Snow Geese flocks in farm fields near Anahuac NWR.
Snow Geese flocks in farm fields near Anahuac NWR. | Source
Whooping Cranes wintering on the Texas coast near Rockport.
Whooping Cranes wintering on the Texas coast near Rockport. | Source
Map of the Shooting Site between Houston and Beaumont Texas
Map of the Shooting Site between Houston and Beaumont Texas
Screen Capture of Petition from Change.org
Screen Capture of Petition from Change.org

What We Know - Facts and Rumor

On January 11, a Texas Game Warden received two calls concerning two Whooping Cranes that had been killed along Blair Road in Jefferson County. (Some early reports claimed the birds were shot in Hardin County.) The two killed were a male and female nearly 2 years old, too young for breeding. The picture above is such a juvenile Whooping Crane. The witnesses are also said to have told the Game Warden who shot the cranes. Further investigation revealed that Trey Joseph Frederick had been seen in the area with a hunting rifle and had claimed to be hunting geese. During an interview with authorities he allegedly admitted that he had killed the cranes.

Fact: A Whooping Crane grows up to 7.5 feet in length with a wingspan of 90 inches. Compare that to the snow geese in the picture above, which ranges 2.3 feet with a wingspan of only 54 inches. If nothing else, one sees a major failure to identify one’s subject properly.

Fact: Waterfowl are hunted with shotguns. Hunting waterfowl with a rifle is illegal. Hunting Whooping Cranes is illegal in Texas and all other states in the Union. They are one of the most endangered birds in North America. The above picture is of two adults.

“Authorities in Beaumont, Texas, took Frederick into custody on January 14 at his home. That same day Frederick appeared in federal court, accused of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. His next court date is on January 25. He is not allowed to hunt or fish until then,” according to TV news reports.

Since then, his Twitter posts have been what one would expect for someone in Frederick’s position. In separate messages, he has wrote,

  • “Haven’t slept in 2 days got me so messed up!!”
  • “I’m just praying for a miracle honestly”
  • “I really screwed up this time.”

In this, he has good reason to be anxious.

Fact: If convicted, Frederick faces up six months in federal prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

Additionally, a petition has been started by Marianna Whitten in change.org calling for 20,000 supporter signatures to “respectfully request a mandatory maximum sentencing of Mr. Frederick for his crime against Texas wildlife.”

Rumor: Frederick could also be charged under the Endangered Species Act, maximizing fines and jail time.

Fact: It has been stated in online posts that the Whooping Cranes killed were tagged members of a captive breeding and release program administered in part by the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Fact: Local photographers in Texas had said online that, “the birds were relatively tame and several local birders were watching and photographing them regularly.” The petition did not gain the required signatures necessary to be accepted before this first court date.

Rumor: One such birder says that it was his understanding is that a friend of Frederick’s showed him the cranes the day before. He then returned to the area with his rifle to kill them.

Whooping Crane Killers Wanted

Poster seeking information on Whooping Crane deaths.
Poster seeking information on Whooping Crane deaths. | Source

Past Whooping Crane Deaths

This would be just the latest incident where endangered Whooping Cranes have been shot or killed in the U.S. The International Crane Foundation says more than 20 whooping cranes have been shot and killed in the United States over the past five years, leaving about 600 whooping cranes across the country. They were just 115 miles west of Louisiana’s White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, where state and federal biologists had released more than 60 whooping cranes, hoping to create a self-sustaining flock.

The last incident I found taking place in Texas was in 2004 where the fine was $10,000. More recently, a two-year-old female was shot on July 21, 2013, in central Wisconsin. Federal forensics specialists confirmed that the crane had been shot and killed with a .22-caliber bullet. The shooter pleaded guilty to the crime in a federal court in Green Bay and was sentenced to pay $2,000 in fines: $1,500 in restitution to the International Crane Foundation and a $500 Migratory Bird Treaty Act fine. His hunting and fishing rights were revoked for two years.

South Dakota handed out the strongest sentence for this offense. $85,000 in restitution was paid and two years of probation for violating the Federal Endangered Species Act, according to reports made by Wildlife Extra. The shooter was also required to surrender his firearms, and was prohibited from hunting, fishing or trapping within the U.S. for two years. Such tough penalties have been pushed by the International Crane Foundation in hopes that “reckless hunters across the country think twice before setting their sights on an endangered species.” The loss of any of the few remaining cranes, much less a potential breeding pair, is a major setback as Whooping Cranes only have one to three chicks per year. Rarely do you see more than one with its parents.

Balancing Hunting with Conservation

One would think that following federal and state hunting laws should keep any such incidents from happening. Yet, it still happens. While hunting is considered a right in Texas, especially among those that chose to live more independently, it only remains so as long as animal populations can sustain the losses. Our country has seen what happens when hunting isn’t regulated.

Past Hunting Practices

A Punt Gun, used for duck hunting, but later banned because they depleted stocks of wild fowl.
A Punt Gun, used for duck hunting, but later banned because they depleted stocks of wild fowl. | Source
  • Market hunting of ducks in the early 1800’s to supply meat, and feathers to adorn lady’s hats, was a highly profitable industry. To meet the demand, professional hunters developed custom built extremely large shotguns (bore diameters up to 2″) for the task, as seen in the above picture from the referenced source. These weapons were often mounted on long square-ended flat-hulled boats called punts. A single shot from one of these guns could kill as many as 50 birds. Working in groups, entire flocks could be “harvested” with a single volley when boats positioned themselves around their prey and shot in unison. It was not unusual for 500 birds to be harvested in a single day. This practice so depleted duck populations, most states had banned the practice by the 1860s. The Lacey Act of 1900 banned the transport of wild game across state lines, and the practice of market hunting was outlawed by a series of federal laws in 1918.
  • While the White-tail Deer is now considered in a state of overabundance, there was a time the deer of choice for meat was extinct in many states due to over hunting by 1900. With the advent of State Gaming Commissions and carefully regulated hunting, their numbers have increased to near pre-European settlement numbers by the year 2000.
  • Our beloved Thanksgiving Turkey also had its brush with extinction. At one time they numbered into the millions from Canada to Mexico. Our move west was in part dependent on the high availability of Turkeys for subsistence living. By 1920 only about 30,000 remained. Hunters and States came together in a huge relocation program to reintroduce turkeys into areas where they had been depleted. In 1949 the invention of the cannon net-trap allowed birds from one state to be captured and moved more easily. These efforts were funded through federal excise taxes on guns and ammunition. By 2000, populations had recovered to about 5.4 million.

In the case of the Whooping Crane, historic evidence suggests that this was never an abundant or prolific bird. “By 1865, its population was 700 to 1,400. Their numbers dropped rapidly, and by 1890 the Whooping Crane had disappeared from the heart of its breeding range in the north central United States.” This as mostly due to habitat loss due to wetland drainage for farmland; and ironically, due to bird enthusiasts and scientists of the day who practiced egg and specimen collecting, especially from 1870 to 1920.

“By 1938, only two small flocks remained - one non-migratory flock in southwest Louisiana, and one migratory flock that nested in Canada and wintered in Texas. In 1941, there were only 21 whooping cranes in North America.” In a slow process, conservation efforts have included habitat management, captive breeding, hand-raising chicks and leading birds along migration routes with ultralight aircraft to insure the continuation of migrating flocks. This is a costly effort where any loss is tragic and losses by hunters are of greatest concern. Read more in-depth information here.

The young man who is said to have admitted killing two of these birds apparently missed those history lessons. Another thing he doesn’t appear to understand is that conservation is expensive. Setting up nature preserves, building up populations from near extinction and keeping track of populations to determine sustainable hunting levels costs a great deal in taxes, hunting fees, and public and private donations of time and treasure. The 15-year project introducing a new flock to Louisiana was estimated to require 3 to 4 million private fund donations. The rest would be derived from LDWF species restoration dedicated funds and federal grants.

The job of bringing these birds up to sustainable populations is far from over. The jump from 21 to 600 is an amazing achievement, but 600 is a still a very vulnerable number. Part of that number is on the busy Texas coast of Port Aransas, which could be damaged by both human factors (wetland encroachment, coastal pollution and oil spills) and natural geographic dangers such as hurricanes. Thus, the needed efforts to expand populations by introducing new migratory flocks to different parts of the Whooping Crane’s past migration territories.

Frederick’s Future

On January 25 Frederick will stand before a judge once again. In online conversations, the atmosphere waiting for this event has been pretty dark as people consider various options for the young man’s punishment, legal and not. I am not opposed to maximum sentencing in this case, however; fines and punishment are only as effective as the accused’s understanding of their wrongdoing. Knowing why a thing is illegal is as important as seeing the written law, in my view.

The judge in the case has the opportunity to both punish and deliver a learning experience. Yes, Frederick is going to have to pay a stiff fine. Yes, he may be spending some time in jail. He may also be required to give up his weapons and be barred from hunting for at least two years, per precedents.

Why not require those years be spent in community service to educate Frederick about Texas conservation and hunting laws. Why not require him to devote his down-time toward wildlife protection and conservation programs. For someone who loves the outdoors, it would be far better to use this time to improve his understanding of what it takes to preserve it.

No Penalty Expected for Illegal Hunt

Facebook picture of Trey Joseph Frederick
Facebook picture of Trey Joseph Frederick | Source

Apparent Lack of Will

And yet, that’s not what happened.

Word started coming out the day after Frederick’s January 25 court appearance, and it was not at all what was expected.

  1. Despite information that he did use a rifle, which is illegal when hunting birds
  2. Despite there being at least one witness turning him in after warning him against shooting the Whooping Cranes
  3. Despite his having a history of citations for illegal hunting in the past

Frederick may not see any jail time or face serious penalty. The State of Texas has not and is not expected to proceed with any charges in this case. He will be charged with a misdemeanor, according to a report made public by Matt Pierce, a conservation writer in Houston Texas. “Many conservation groups are appalled at the actions of officials and their handling of this case,” he stated in an online post. “… a misdemeanor which means Frederick will not be charged with a felony which will allow him to purchase and possess a firearm and continue to hunt without restriction.”

Further details, made public, state that he found out about the flock as early as December 10, 2015. Frederick used his grandmother’s tan sedan to visit the Whooping Crane’s location regularly. He is said to have told one witness not to tell others what he was doing.

Since his first appearance, Frederick filed a pauper’s affidavit requesting a court appointed attorney. In the affidavit, he states that he has little or nothing in the way of personal assets. During his appearance, Frederick’s attorney requested he recant his original confession, pleading not guilty in court. He was later released on a personal (PR) bond that allowed him to not have to pay anything to be released from custody.

Just why the State of Texas or Federal authorities are not willing to press charges in this case are unknown. One may presume the lack of ability to pay the prevailing fines might have something to do with it. The youth of the accused also could be playing into this. Having a history of illegal hunting as a juvenile, (presuming, as he is presently 18) may not be admissible in court, now that he is an adult.

Nonetheless, this is a bad decision. To allow this young man to walk away from an act against both State and Federal law without any meaningful penalty will leave him and others with reason to believe Texas has no interest in protecting its wildlife, highly endangered or not.

  • This is bad news for all the law abiding hunters who will suffer being associated with Frederick.
  • This is bad news for the Louisiana Whooping Crane project and its efforts to build a new flock so near its border with Texas.
  • It is bad news for communities in the flight path of the annual Whooping crane migration from Nebraska each year. Many of these communities host birding festivals, such as the Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival which will begin February 26 this year. The festival brings tourists from across the country. If Texas is seen as less than interested in protecting this endangered species, some festival goers may stop coming in protest.
  • This is very bad news to the witnesses who called the game warden about the deaths of these birds. They took the effort to report the crime and identify the shooter. If no penalty is applied, their efforts will be for nothing. And in the future, will they or others be willing to turn in illegal hunters with this as an example of how seriously the matter is taken by State authorities?

I and many others following this case are deeply disappointed in the way this matter is being handled. One expects better of those charged with protecting Texas wildlife and insuring that game laws are followed.

© 2016 Sherry Thornburg

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