Officials worry killings of eagles is a troubling omen

Harrisburg — With American bald eagles on the increase in Pennsylvania, wildlife officials worry that the slaughter of two mature birds in May is a dark indication of more such incidents to come.

As of early June, it was still unknown who killed the two eagles within just five days of each other, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission said it will not cease its investigations until the perpetrators are caught.

Public outrage and a reward fund have continued to grow, since eagles have both federal- and commonwealth-protected status. Game Commission spokesman Tom Fazi hopes they will lead to arrests.

“We’re canvassing the area, and getting some calls from the public. They’re naming names, although nothing solid-solid has emerged,” said Fazi, who is a wildlife conservation officer involved in the Cambria County case. “There’s a lot of hearsay we’re trying to piece together.”

Several agencies, including the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and the Humane Society of the United States, have joined the commission to offer a reward in the Cambria case. It topped $7,250 at last count.

The Cambria County eagle was alive but bleeding from the mouth when it was spotted by ATV riders in a wooded area off a field in Allegheny Township May 10. It died in a Game Commission vehicle en route to the office of commission veterinarian Walt Cottrell.

Five days earlier, another eagle was found dead in Clay Township in Butler County.

The bodies of both birds were shipped to the University of Georgia’s Southeast Wildlife Cooperative Disease Study for necropsy, where it was determined they died from gunshot wounds.

The bodies then were sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Eagle Repository in Denver, which eventually will distribute the birds’ feathers and other parts to Native Americans for use in religious ceremonies.

This is allowed under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which otherwise prohibits possession of eagle parts, as well as the killing of eagles.

Whoever shot the Pennsyl­vania birds could face state fines of $5,000 and up to a year in jail, as well as similar federal penalties, said Regis Senko, the wildlife conservation officer handling public outreach in the Butler eagle death.

Hunters and non-hunters have expressed anger over the killings, he said. “Shooting an eagle simply isn’t acceptable.”

Eagle shootings have been relatively rare, with just two known incidents in the past decade in Pennsylvania. One involved a hunter who mistook an eagle for a turkey roosting in a tree along Beaverdam Run Reservoir in Cambria County.

But they may become more common given how eagle numbers have rebounded, Senko warned. “As eagles become more numerous, incidents may occur more often.”

With 100 known nesting sites throughout the state, the eagles’ state conservation status was downgraded in recent years from endangered to threatened. Eagle reintroduction efforts begun in Pennsylvania in 1983 have yielded one of the great wildlife success stories of modern times.

But a rebounding population may make them as vulnerable as other raptors, such as hawks, which, despite government protection, have been persecuted by hunters, farmers and others who perceive they are a threat to livestock and small game, Fazi said.

“We run into that thinking pretty often. We average a couple of successful poaching prosecutions a year, where the motivation for killing a raptor was, ‘They’re killing our game,’ or ‘I don’t like to see a ‘sharpie’ taking birds at our feeder.’

“Sometimes it’s an opportunistic killing. Someone sees a hawk, and they shoot it.”

Fazi pointed out that the loss of an eagle’s life can go beyond one bird, since eagles pair-bond for life and it is possible those killed were tending nests.

“That’s why people are so sad,” Fazi said. “Everyone knows you’re not to shoot an eagle, our national bird. Even some of our worst poachers wouldn’t stoop that low.”

Both Fazi and Senko urge the public to call the commission with any information they may have about the shooters, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

“People think they have to hand us a case on a silver platter, but that’s far from true,” said Senko. “No matter how small or silly something may seem, tell us and let us decide if it is relevant or not. You’d be surprised how crimes can be solved by piecing together small details.”

To report, call the commission at 1-888-PGC-8001.

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