For the Birds Radio Program: Hunter in Florida Kills Two Whooping Cranes

Original Air Date: Dec. 20, 2000

A hunter is getting off with only minor penalties for shooting two Whooping Cranes in Florida. He claims he mistook them for ducks. Laura thinks he should lose his right to hunt and to own a gun.

Duration: 4′20″


One of the most disturbing things to come out of Florida lately involving a man named Bush has nothing to do with the election nor with Jeb or George W. Last month an 18-year-old named William Lonnie Bush Jr. of St. Augustine, Florida, killed two Whooping Cranes with a bolt­ action .22 Remington, shooting from his Chevy pickup.

These cranes were part of a group released in Wisconsin by the International Crane Foundation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of a project to reintroduce a population to Florida, where they once lived, in hopes of ensuring the crane’s survival if there is ever a catastrophe at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, where the world’s entire surviving natural Whooping Crane population currently winters. There have been a few cases of hunters shooting Whooping Cranes in Texas, claiming to have mistaken them for Snow Geese, but this guy in Florida made an even more unbelievable claim-he says he mistook them for ducks. He didn’t explain why shooting ducks from a truck using a 22 and leaving their carcasses seemed an appropriate thing to do.

Birders had been watching the cranes that morning, and came back to the field later in the day to find the two pitiful carcasses. Eyewitnesses reported seeing someone shooting into the field from a blue Chevy pickup. Bush was caught when he tried to get his truck repainted.

Whooping Cranes are an endangered species, with a scant 400 in existence. Many states oppose the introduction of endangered species because so many hunters don’t identify the birds they’re shooting at until they retrieve the dead carcass. So in Florida, the Whooping Crane was exempted from its endangered status, and William Lonnie Bush will not be prosecuted for killing the two endangered birds.

I can’t help but feel that there is something wrong with not prosecuting people who shoot rare birds, whether they are technically endangered or not. It seems to me that hunters should be responsible for knowing exactly what they are aiming a lethal weapon at before pulling the trigger, and that they should be tested in basic game bird identification before they can be granted a hunting license in the same way that we’re tested to make sure we recognize road signs before we can get a driver’s license. Hunters should take pride in their sport, but if they join together to protect people like William Lonnie Bush from legitimate legal prosecution, they lower themselves to the level of the worst of their members.

Anyway, at this point Mr. Bush is being prosecuted by Florida state laws, which will give him a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and 60 days in jail per offense. If he were prosecuted under federal laws, the penalty could go as high as $25,000 with six months in jail per offense, but at this point the federal government hasn’t pressed any charges.

Many of us hope that Whooping Cranes will be reintroduced to Wisconsin soon, to provide a back-up in case anything catastrophic happened to the breeding population at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. But these programs are extraordinarily expensive, each bird precious. I sure hope Wisconsin hunters know how to tell a crane from a duck, and that they take enough pride in their skills and sportsmanship that they won’t defend scofflaws like Bush.

Hunting is a traditional, and usually an honorable, pastime. But at a time when people are growing ever more crowded and certain birds ever more rare, the privilege of shooting lethal weapons at birds that belong to all of us needs to be carefully overseen. For his egregious violation of the most basic of hunting laws, William Lonnie Bush deserves to forfeit both his hunting license and his right to operate a gun permanently.