Bald Eagle Poachers

Mar 9, 2020

There may be few images that inspire thoughts of strength, courage, and independence more than that of the majestic bald eagle soaring in the blue sky. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, there are poachers that shoot and injure these birds and leave them to die. The Masked Biologist focuses on this topic in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

Tragically, this episode is “ripped from the headlines.” Recently, two different bald eagles were shot and injured in two separate instances. Both were brought to the Raptor Education Group Inc, or REGI, and both succumbed to their injuries. I couldn’t let this pass without comment.

The founding fathers saw this bird as beautiful, courageous, strong, and independent—the embodiment of everything they believed in. At this time, the bald eagle was believed to be found only in North America; no Europeans would have seen it before arriving in the colonies. Legend has it that this bird was seen flying over a Revolutionary War battlefield in the early morning hours, its piercing cry a call to arms for freedom. 

The bald eagle was part of the design of the Great Seal of the United States of America which was adopted in 1782. The Great Seal (or Presidential Seal) used the bald eagle as the symbol of power and authority.  The bald eagle itself was officially adopted as the emblem of the USA in 1787. Since that time, the bald eagle has been used to represent strength, liberty, freedom, and our proud nation itself.

Bald eagles mate for life. They usually choose a large white pine or other tall tree near or over water as a nest site. Pairs construct their nest cooperatively, returning to reuse it every spring. They lay 1-3 eggs in March, hatching in May or June. The immature birds take 5 years to reach adulthood, at which time they develop their recognizable white head and tail.

As our nation’s emblem, the bald eagle has enjoyed special protection, including the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 (amended to include golden eagles in 1962), which specifically protects the bald eagle, its young or eggs, eagle nests, and nest trees from “take” meaning any activity directly or indirectly contributing to their death. However, even with Federal protection, these birds were on the brink of extinction fifty years ago. There were an estimated 400 pairs of these birds left in the mid-1960s.  Use of the pesticide DDT was thought to be the main cause for the species’ decline. The pesticide was subsequently banned, helping to slow and halt the decline of many bird species. Through the 1970s, many laws were passed to halt pollution and to protect the environment and the wildlife that uses it. The Endangered Species Act is an example, providing Federal protection to endangered wildlife and its habitat since 1972.

Today, the bald eagle is a conservation success story. With over 2,000 pairs in the wild, the eagle was declared recovered in 2007 and removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. Bald eagles can be found nesting in at least 55 Wisconsin counties; of these, Vilas County wins the prize for the most eagles. With 1,318 lakes hosting clear, fish-laden lakes and tall trees for nesting, Vilas County hosts over 160 nesting bald eagle pairs. Oneida county is close behind with 140 active nests. Even without being an endangered species, they are still protected by the Bald Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act. This is no joke. The maximum penalty for killing an eagle is $100,000 and a year in prison.

Would knowing and understanding how special this bird is, and how much it has had to overcome to maintain a healthy population, have prevented this tragedy? Personally, I can’t fathom it. Who would thrill kill an eagle? Honestly, there would be no thrill in it. They spend a lot of time on the ground or sitting in a tree. When they fly, they usually fly slowly, often soaring with wings outspread. Then, add the fact that these birds weren’t killed, they were injured. Was someone shooting at them to scare them away? There aren’t any bird hunting seasons open, so it isn’t like they were misidentified as turkeys or something. Unfortunately, I think it likely that these birds were actively nesting with a lifelong mate that was left behind, meaning that nest and its potential brood are lost. What a senseless waste.

Spread the word and help bring these violators to justice. I predict that anyone who kills an eagle for sport is likely to have bragged about it to someone else. They are cowards, poachers, and criminals. Individuals with information about the shootings can call or text the DNR's tip line at 1-800-847-9367 or submit a violation report online. Since the birds are federally protected, the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife working together investigating these crimes.