MINNEAPOLIS -- On May 17, Craig Staloch just snapped, his lawyer says.
Within the space of a few hours he smashed thousands of American White Pelican chicks and eggs -- all the offspring in one of Minnesota's largest colonies -- even though a wildlife officer had told him the day before that they were protected by federal law.
Making his first court appearance Thursday, Staloch, a farmer from Faribault County, Minn., entered no plea to a criminal misdemeanor charge filed for what conservation officials say is one of the most extreme acts of wildlife destruction they've encountered.
"He flipped out," said Staloch's attorney, Jason Kohlmeyer. "He got frustrated and went to town."
The birds had damaged about seven acres of the land he rented on the shores of Minnesota Lake, Staloch said after the hearing. Over the last three years they have cost him $20,000 in expenses and lost revenue, he said. When he asked for help, state wildlife specialists suggested a fence to protect his crops, Kohlmeyer said.
"But that's not effective," he said. "The damn birds fly."
The incident occurred after a wildlife specialist from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources went to see the colony as part of an annual state survey of the federally protected pelicans. Once nearly extinct, the striking birds, with their orange beaks and black fringed wings, have made a comeback since the 1960s. Minnesota is now the summer home for about 20,000 pairs, far more than any other state.
The massive colony of 3,000 birds, one of 16 in the state, had nested on an island in Minnesota Lake since at least 1995, and probably long before, said Linda Wires, an expert on pelicans at the University of Minnesota. If they can, the birds return to the same place to nest generation after generation.
The birds prefer the safety of islands, but in recent years they had been forced ashore as high water levels shrank their nesting site. The pelicans built their nests in a wooded area on the southwest corner of the lake, on land Staloch rented to grow corn and soybeans.
According to the complaint, when the DNR specialist arrived, she realized there were too many birds to count. She decided to come back the next morning with Wires and others to help. Later that day Staloch called her to ask if he had any "options" regarding the birds, but was told they were protected and could not be harmed.
"He didn't know we were coming back," Wires said.
The next day it was obvious that something was wrong, she said. Normally, the enormous birds, with wing spans of 8 to 10 feet, fly off when disturbed. But the colony was eerily silent and empty, she said.
Then they began finding broken eggs. When Wires put her hand on the grassy nests, they were cold. As they moved through the brush, they began finding smashed and dead chicks. They found a total 1,458 nests and 2,400 eggs and chicks had been destroyed. Only one chick was still alive.
"It was a gruesome sight," Wires said.
Kohlmeyer said that when confronted by investigators for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Staloch admitted that he'd destroyed the colony. In the last few years, the birds had crushed some of his crops with their big feet, and, Staloch said, their droppings had ruined the soil.
U.S. Magistrate Jeffrey Keyes set a trial date for Nov. 28. If convicted of the federal misdemeanor, Staloch could face a fine of up to $15,000 and six months in jail for violating the federal Migratory Bird Act. But Staloch's attorney said he hopes that he can settle the case without a trial.
"Mr. Staloch will be the first to admit he made a horrible mistake," Kohlmeyer said.
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