Federal investigators have joined the hunt for the person or people mutilating pelicans in the Keys, mainly in the lower part of the county.
According to several sources, agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are heavily involved in the investigation. The agency would not comment.
Since January, almost 20 of the federally protected migratory birds have been found with their pouches slit open. Most of the wounded pelicans were found alive, but with their pouches cut, they can't eat — food slips right -through — and will starve to death. The birds need to eat about 4 pounds of fish daily to survive.
The attacks are happening in a roughly 16-mile radius between Summerland Key around mile marker 19 and Spanish Harbor Key at mile marker 36.
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The latest victim was found, and saved, by Monroe County Public Works Department staffer Jim Crane near Sugarloaf Elementary School on, coincidentally, Crane Boulevard.
"He actually found me," Crane said.
The longtime county employee was changing out signs on the road when the bird came waddling up to him. Crane noticed the upper and lower parts of the bird's pouch were slashed, each wound being about 6 to 10 inches long.
"It brought tears to my eyes," Crane said.
Crane stayed with the bird for about 45 minutes, until Maya Totman, head of Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue on Big Pine Key, arrived. The rescue is a nonprofit group rehabilitating the wounded birds. While he waited, the pelican sat by his side. Meanwhile, overhead, turkey vultures began circling.
"If they had zeroed in on him, they knew the pelican was pretty sick," Crane said.
Agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also examined the bird, Crane said.
Since 2013, the pelican mutilations have become common in the Lower Keys during the winter tourist season. And the attacks are happening in roughly the same area. There have been no similar mutilations in Key West of the Upper Keys.
The brown pelican is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Anyone injuring the birds is subject to fines and possible jail time if found guilty.
In 1970, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown pelican as endangered after environmental pesticide contamination threatened the species’ survival. In 1985, the population in Florida rebounded to 60,000 and it was taken off the Endangered Species list in that part of its range
The brown pelican is also on Florida's endangered and threatened species list as a species of special concern due to habitat loss and numerous injuries from fishing hooks and lines.
Monroe County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin said there is a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction in the case.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asks the public to report sightings of injured pelicans to the commission at (888) 404-3922 or to Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue at (305) 304-5326. Anyone seeing an injured bird in the Lower Keys can also call Totman at (305) 872-1982.
Go to KeysNet.com to read more.