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Western Kentucky Man Charged with Disturbing Nests of Endangered Bird

bird nest

A Carlisle County man who allegedly drove an ATV inside a protected area containing federally-endangered interior least tern nests was charged June 30 with disturbing nests and interfering with an officer.

Twenty-year-old Keaton Rathermel of Bardwell, Ky., also had his ATV seized pending court action, said Sgt. Denny Broyles of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Conservation officers with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife joined with special agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stake out a protected island just south of Wickliffe.

The island, a large sandbar in the Mississippi River, contains approximately 30 nesting pairs of interior least terns. Only an estimated 20,000 of these birds exist in the world; Kentucky hosts 800 to 1,000 pairs.

In Kentucky, interior least terns nest along sandbars and islands along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Louisville to Fulton County, said John Brunjes, migratory bird biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. Biologists have marked critical nesting areas with signs prohibiting visitation or vehicle use.

Interior least terns nest directly on the sand in shallow indentations. The camouflage coloration of the eggs and chicks make them difficult to see.

Officers recently set up surveillance on the island near Wickliffe due to ATV riding at the location and frequent destruction of warning signs.

On Saturday evening, June 30, Broyles said conservation officers observed Rathermel drive past a posted sign onto the protected island. Officers stopped Rathermel as he exited the island. Rathermel was charged with a violation of disturbing nests. Broyles said officers added a second charge of interfering with an officer, a misdemeanor, due to Rathermel’s behavior and refusal to comply with an officer’s request after being stopped.

Officials could not immediately determine whether any nests were destroyed during Saturday’s incident. Brunjes said he has photographs taken the previous week of ATV tracks within a few feet of a nest.

“The last four nesting years have been bad ones for interior least terns because of high river levels,” Brunjes said. “This has been a good year so far there are lots of sandbars available for nesting.”

Biologists have documented and posted 18 islands this year with endangered tern nests on them. Boaters and pleasure riders should avoid all posted areas.

“We’re planning to step up enforcement to help protect these areas,” Broyles said. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is doing this as well. If someone is caught riding in a protected area, that person could face federal charges and jail time.”

A July 18 court date has been set for Rathermel in Carlisle District Court.

Image courtesy of Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

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