Almost 20 years ago, a New York biologist stumbled across 1,000 dead double-crested cormorants on an island in eastern Lake Ontario.
They had been shot, a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But dead birds can’t talk, and as with many suspicious animal deaths, there were no witnesses to interview.
So state and federal investigators offered a reward for information. Within a month, the owner of the Houston Rockets added $50,000 to the pot — and the case was eventually solved.
Today, $30,000 is available for those who help solve another mysterious slaughter: 13 bald eagles that showed up dead last month on a Maryland farm with no obvious signs of trauma.
In the world of wildlife crime, such rewards are somewhat common.
"It’s really done a lot of times in cases where you know there’s no human witnesses," said Edward Grace, deputy assistant director for the Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. "The wildlife can’t be a witness to you, and then it’s in pretty rural areas. A lot of the time, we need the eyes and ears of the public."
In the cormorant case, the perpetrators ended up being nine sport fishermen who thought killing off both adult and nestling cormorants would help preserve smallmouth bass.
The bald eagle case is ongoing.
FWS spokeswoman Catherine Hibbard said investigators know what happened to the birds, thanks to a state-of-the-art forensics lab in Oregon. But they are not disclosing the cause in order to better sift through tips, though investigators know the deaths are human-caused, she said. They were found in Caroline County, on a field near Laurel Grove Road in Federalsburg.
"We’re hoping with this amount of money that someone does step forward, because someone somewhere knows what happened," Hibbard said.
Most of the $30,000 reward does not come from FWS, which initially offered $2,500. But other groups have sweetened the pot. The most recent addition was $5,000 from the American Bird Conservancy.
"I can’t imagine many more things more important than protecting an iconic bird so widely regarded as a symbol of this country," ABC President George Fenwick said in a statement.
FWS officials couldn’t immediately provide details on how often rewards work. Grace was unsure whether the $50,000 in the cormorant case was ever distributed because it came from a third party and was so long ago.
But a citizen tip helped a case as recently as 2012, when a whooping crane was shot in Indiana and a reward for information became more than $5,000. The bird is protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Two men pleaded guilty to shooting the crane, which belonged to a nesting pair and was one of only 100 that fly a migratory route in the eastern United States.
Unlike higher-profile cases in the world of human-on-human crime, potential tips for wildlife crime are sometimes directed to the phone of the investigator on the case. For the bald eagle deaths, Special Agent John LaCorte’s number has been spread far and wide (and, for anyone with tips, it’s 410-228-2476).
Grace said that enables investigators to find leads in even seemingly innocuous information.
"They may not realize that the information they have could be very important. It may be that they saw a vehicle that seemed out of place," Grace said. "That could then be a cornerstone of the puzzle."
As for why people kill protected animals, Grace said the reasons are varied, from seeing the animals as pests to protecting livestock to scaring off predators that get in the way of hunting.