Angry over crop losses, the Faribault County man destroyed thousands of protected pelican eggs and chicks. He had his first court date Thursday.
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 of the offspring in one of the state's largest colonies -- even though a wildlife officer had told him the previous day that they were protected by federal law.
Making his first appearance in federal court Thursday, Staloch, a farmer from Faribault County, 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 ever 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 land he was renting on the shores of Minnesota Lake, Staloch said after the hearing. Over the past three years they've 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 (DNR) visited 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 to 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 that, 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 nests in a wooded area on the southwest corner of the lake, on land that Staloch rented to grow corn and soybeans.
According to the complaint, when the DNR specialist arrived, she realized that there were too many birds to count. She decided to come back the next morning with Wires and others to help. Staloch called her later that day to ask whether 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.
It was obvious the next day that something was wrong, she said. Normally, the enormous birds, with wingspans 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 past few years, the birds had crushed some of his crops with their big feet and, Staloch said, their droppings had ruined the soil.
There have been cases in which a few federally protected animals were destroyed either by accident or intentionally, officials from both the DNR and the Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday. But none could recall an incident as extensive as this.
Since the complaint was filed in September, Staloch has received about a dozen anonymous threats, Kohlmeyer said. "One guy said 'I'm going to do to you what you did to those birds,'" he said.
U.S. Magistrate Jeffrey Keyes set a trial date of Nov. 28. If convicted of the federal misdemeanor, Staloch could face a fine of as much as $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.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394