By Tim Ghianni

(Reuters) - Kentucky is offering a $7,200 reward to anyone who can lead authorities to the person or people responsible for shooting two endangered whooping cranes that arrived in the state this winter.

The two 5-foot (1.5-meter) tall, pure white birds, who were mates, were killed around Thanksgiving in central Kentucky, according to U.S. officials. The shooters could face up to a $100,000 fine and a year in jail.

Fewer than 500 whooping cranes live in the wild in the United States, making them the world's most endangered crane species, said Tom MacKenzie a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday. Only seven spend their winters in Kentucky.

Joe Duff, the co-founder of Operation Migration, an organization that helps young whooping cranes on their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida, called the shooters "vandals that want to kill something, putting their own moods, feelings and aggressions on a creature that doesn't deserve it."

Whooping cranes are protected by two federal laws: the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

On November 25, a resident of Hopkins County, Kentucky, reported seeing an injured bird. Two days later, the female bird was rescued and, though still able to fly, was extremely weak, with a shattered upper leg, MacKenzie said. The bird was euthanized.

The dead male crane was found December 13. The pair had been fitted with radio transmitters by conservationists and had wintered in the area the previous two years, MacKenzie said.

Investigators believe both cranes, recovered 5 miles apart, had been shot in the same incident.

Private conservation groups including the Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Foundation, International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration contributed the funds for the reward.

(Editing by Brendan O'Brien and Gunna Dickson)