Woman fights through forest of regulation for heron North Carroll High to get stuffed bird

October 18, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

Carol Bentz of Manchester battled the bureaucracy and won.

And North Carroll High School in Hampstead will soon have a stuffed great blue heron to prove it.

"It was horrendous, but he's my bird," she said, after obtaining permits from Minnesota to Massachusetts to allow the preservation of "Steve," a great blue heron that died near her summer home on the Platte River in Michigan.

Mrs. Bentz spent days on the phone, negotiating a maze of state and federal bureaucracies that might have blocked a less determined person. In the end, she obtained every form of

permission needed to allow the school to have the bird, a member of a species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

It all began Aug. 11, when Mrs. Bentz tried to get someone to help a listless great blue heron on a dock near her Honor, Mich., home.

Wildlife volunteers were willing to help, but a permit is needed to touch a sick heron.

Even wildlife rescue groups must have the proper permits before giving medical aid.

For two days, while Mrs. Bentz searched for someone who did have a permit, the bird got sicker. His 6-inch bill drooped closer to the water, and he died.

Mrs. Bentz contends that the laws designed to protect the bird led to its demise: "It's so protected, it's dead."

Mrs. Bentz thought she could at least have the creature mounted. All she would have to do is scoop it up and take it to a taxidermist. But, she learned, a government permit is needed to "salvage" a dead heron. And even when stuffed, the bird cannot be kept by a private citizen. It may be housed only by an approved public, scientific or educational institution.

At that point, Mrs. Bentz said, the struggle became a matter of principle.

"The government made me angry," she said. "I thought it was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard in my life."

rTC She decided to try to obtain the bird for her children's high school. After phoning her way through various government offices in Michigan, she went to federal officials.

Eventually, she reached Steve Middleton, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Law Enforcement in Grand Rapids. He gave Mrs. Bentz verbal permission to freeze the birdwhile he obtained permits for her.

Faxes flew. Mr. Middleton secured the salvage permit and permission for Mrs. Bentz to donate the heron to the school.

In gratitude, Mrs. Bentz named the deceased heron "Steve."

"He was the only person who was nice, and thoughtful, and helpful, and said, 'No problem,' " she declared.

The heron was packed into a salmon cooler, carefully wrapped to guard his pencil-thin legs against freezer burn.

Everything seemed on track, until Mr. Middleton discovered that Steve's final resting place would be a high school, not in Michigan, but in Hampstead, Md.

And a permit, or rather two, are needed to transport a dead heron from Michigan to Maryland.

"We thought of just putting it in the trunk and taking it home," Mrs. Bentz said, but there was the chance of getting caught. "I said, 'My God, it's like running drugs.' "

Anyone caught illegally possessing or transporting a dead heron is subject to a federal fine of up to $5,000, or six months in jail, or both, and a state fine of up to $1,000, or one year in jail, or both.

If a person is found guilty of selling the bird, the federal fine may reach $250,000 and the jail term may reach two years, said Janet Chesky of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington.

So Mr. Middleton got back on the phone. Mrs. Bentz got permission in time for her trip back to Maryland.

Back in Maryland, Mrs. Bentz began shopping around for a taxidermist to stuff Steve, but discovered a taxidermist has to have a special federal license for handling protected birds. She eventually found such a taxidermist, Rachael Riffee, who does work for Piney Run Park.

North Carroll High School agreed to pay $100 for the taxidermy work, and Steve should be ready for display by Christmas.

The school will be ready for him, too. It already has the paperwork in order. Because federal permission is needed to keep a dead heron.

Mrs. Bentz said that she is glad Steve won't go to waste, and completing her mission left her feeling proud.

"I felt like I really accomplished something," she said. "So many people say, you can't fight the government. You can. There's hope. Hang in there."

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