Eagle shootings shock wildlife experts

Jennifer Merritt and T.O Farwell saw this injured golden eagle outside Helix. It had been shot with a high-powered rifle and, though it was brought to the local raptor rehabilitation center, it didn't survive the night.<br><I>Photo contributed by Jennifer Merritt

Jennifer Merritt, her boyfriend T.O. Farwell, and their baby, Oregon Farwell, were driving from Heppner to Pendleton last week, when they saw something on the side of the road that just didn't look right.

They spotted a golden eagle on the ground, in the snow, with its wings spread out. The climbed out of the car to get a closer look at it and looking at the area around the bird, they saw feathers spread around and could tell it'd been shot.

"He was shot pretty bad," Merritt said. She could see the wing and side were injured.

Farwell scooped up the injured raptor, put the baby's hat over its head and drove to a friend's house. The friend recommended they take it to Lynn Tompkins at the Blue Mountain Wildlife rehabilitation center in Pendleton.

Getting help

Tompkins said the eagle was a full adult, at least five years old, and in good health. It hadn't been hit with birdshot. The raptor had been shot by a high-powered rifle. Going from Merritt's description of the scene, she said the eagle had been shot while perching.

"The bullet had basically destroyed one knee joint and grazed the side and hit the wing between the wrist and elbow," she said. "The bird was never going to fly again."

She did what she could for it, but the eagle died that night.

The same day, Tompkins heard a similar report of another eagle outside Pilot Rock. The day after the eagle died, Tompkins asked Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Mark Kirsch to find it.

Kirsch said he went out to where the eagle had been spotted near Nye Junction and chased it through the snow and threw his coat over it. Though the raptor couldn't fly, it did try to hop away. Kirsch put it in a dog carrier and brought it back to Tompkins.

Like Merritt's eagle, Tompkins and Kirsch discovered this one had also been shot with a high-powered rifle.

"I thought that bird had been hit by a car when I first got it," Tompkins said.

She said the second eagle had been shot in the humerus (the larger wing bone, or on people, the larger arm bone), fracturing it. Then, in the cold, it likely struggled. When it got to Tompkins, it had twisted its wing around itself at the fracture point.

"From that fracture point to the wing tip was frozen solid," Tompkins said. "It had just been hanging there."

Kirsh thought that's what allowed the eagle to live so long on the side of the road, if the wing hadn't frozen, he thought it would have bled out.

When she unwound the wing, Tompkins said there was a huge hole and probably two and a half inches of bone gone.

Tompkins euthanized the second eagle because the only way to heal it would have been to amputate the wing and the bird wouldn't have been able to keep its balance without it.

Like the other eagle, this one had been healthy before it was shot. Though it was younger, probably only three years old.

Not so uncommon

Tompkins said getting two gunshot eagles in one week was unusual, but seeing birds of prey that have been shot is not as uncommon as she would like. She said she's seen at least a dozen in the last year.

"Unfortunately this is not out of the ordinary," said Carl Scheeler, wildlife program manager with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He said his department helps out at Blue Mountain Wildlife. "We see a disturbing number of hawks, eagles and owls that are shot."

Even though she said she receives more than 350 admissions in a year and a dozen isn't a huge percentage, it's more disturbing than other injuries - and it's illegal.

"It is illegal to shoot any native species of bird, period," Tompkins said.

Eagles are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

"The birds are protected, their eggs, their nests, their young," Tompkins said. "It's illegal to harass them in any way."

Oregon State Police wildlife investigator Rick Carter is investigating the two recent eagle deaths, but it's difficult. The eagles could have been shot from 200 yards away, which makes locating a bullet casing difficult. With all the snow melting, it's nearly impossible.

Kirsch hopes someone will hear the shooters talking or bragging about bagging the eagles and report them.

"Someone out there knows this happened," Carter said. "We want to have someone come forward, someone who heard bragging and disapproves of what went on."

He said the basic reward for information relating to game violations is $250, but with deaths of eagles, often the U.S. Fish and Wildlife or other wildlife organizations like the Audubon Society will add to the reward, sometimes raising it to $1,000.

The federal laws against killing raptors can result in up to a year in jail and up to $5,000 in fines, Carter said.

There are also state laws, but while there are maximum sentences of a year in jail or $1,000 fine, its more likely state punishment would result in two years probation and a suspension of hunting privileges, Carter said.

In extreme cases, he said hunters who poach raptors could lose their hunting privileges for life.

Raising awareness

"My hope is by doing this article we'll seek awareness," Tompkins said.

She hopes more people will keep their eyes out for poachers or keep their ears tuned for bragging about shooting eagles or other raptors.

"Maybe we can stop it or at least slow it down," she said.

While she sees other people-related injuries to birds, like those hit by cars, they're unintentional.

"But shooting them is another story," she said.

"It's a sad thing when somebody is so thoughtless as to shoot such a beautiful animal," Scheeler said. "It's just a worthless waste."

Kirsch said some people get frustrated with birds of prey because of their impact on upland game birds, but eagles don't prey on them very often. Otherwise, he couldn't think of a reason they would shoot an eagle.

As far as what happened in this case, he wasn't sure.

"It might have been nothing more than it was there and someone had the inclination," he said.

When asked what he would say to the perpetrators if he had the chance, Scheeler said:

"I would ask them what it was they were trying to accomplish? I would ask why they thought what they were doing was acceptable in any way? These birds are a magnificent species. ... You can buy targets at Bi-Mart for 30 cents apiece. You don't need to shoot something as valuable as a golden eagle."

If anyone has information on these two eagle shootings, they can contact Carter at the Oregon State Police at 278-1688.

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