A southern Minnesota farmer has been fined $12,500 and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service in a wildlife program for a rampage last spring in which he destroyed thousands of white pelican eggs and chicks.
Craig Staloch, 59, of Minnesota Lake, was also placed on two years' probation. The fine, which was near the maximum, will go into a wetland conservation fund.
A remorseful Staloch said at a sentencing hearing on Monday that the act was "the stupidest, stupidest thing I've ever done in my life. And I've defaced my family name.'' In pleading guilty to the federal misdemeanor last spring, Staloch said he flew into a rage because the birds had damaged his corn crop.
Federal Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes noted Monday that Staloch, who is also employed as a postal worker in Easton, Minn., "has a stellar record" in his community. But a federal wildlife agent said the incident was one of the largest "illegal bird takes'' in the nation. It was almost certainly the most serious violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act ever to have occurred in Minnesota, said Pat Lund, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minnesota.
"You caused an enormous amount of damage," the judge said.
Within the space of a few hours last May, Staloch smashed thousands of American White pelican chicks and eggs -- all of the offspring in one of the state's largest colonies -- even though a state wildlife officer had told him the previous day that they were protected by federal law.
Staloch pleaded guilty to the federal misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of $15,000 and six months in jail. Staloch said he had been frustrated because the giant birds, which nested along the shore of Minnesota Lake, had cost him $20,000 in damage and expenses on about seven acres he rented to grow corn. He apparently did not know that the Department of Natural Resource wildlife official would return the next day to do a survey of the colony.
Staloch and his attorney declined to comment after Monday's hearing.
Linda Wires, an expert on water birds at the University of Minnesota who was among those who discovered the destroyed colony, said the penalty was unusually stiff for such cases. But it's important, she said, because the number of complaints about birds has increased dramatically in recent years as the species, once nearly extinct, has recovered. The same is true of other fish-eating birds, cormorants in particular, she said.
"Now that the number has really escalated, there is a backward trend in attitudes about fish-eating birds," she said.
Minnesota is the summer home to about 20,000 pairs of the striking pelicans, with their orange beaks and black-tipped wings, far more than any other state. The 3,000 birds on Minnesota Lake make up one of 16 colonies in Minnesota, places where the birds return to nest year after year.
Until the mid-1990s, the birds had nested on an island in the lake. But as their population grew and the island shrank because of rising water, the birds have moved to the shore.
People who live near or on the lake said in letters sent to the judge on Staloch's behalf that the birds have become a nuisance.
"The island became a guano dump," said one former resident. Another said all the farmers around the lake have lost crops to pelicans and geese, and suggested that if the state would compensate them "there would not be such negative feelings" toward wildlife agencies that enforce protection laws.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394