Authorities offer reward in probe of dead eagles

By Brian Skoloff
Salt Lake City, Utah (AP) September 2012

Authorities investigating an unusual uptick of bald and golden eagle killings across Utah over the past two years are offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to successful prosecutions.

The eagles, which are protected under two separate federal laws, have been found in multiple counties across the state since 2010.

“To have this many in one place, it’s unique,” said Tom Tidwell, resident agent in charge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Utah and Colorado. “It certainly has our attention.”

Tidwell said a typical year may see roughly three eagles killed in Utah or surrounding states, so the increase in fatalities has authorities perplexed.

“It certainly looks like an uptick,” he said. “It’s always going to get our attention whether it’s one eagle or multiple eagles, but there’s just a lot of unsolved cases right now.”

Some of the birds have been shot to death, while others suffered from poisoning, likely unintentional but illegal nonetheless.

Authorities don’t believe all the deaths are connected, and there’s no evidence linking the killings to Native American ceremonies.

“These are just random killings that are not necessarily related to each other in most instances,” said Capt. Tony Wood of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “We don’t see necessarily any trend here that we have a group of people out killing eagles.”

Several Indian tribes have been allowed permits to kill golden eagles for religious purposes, but many get feathers that are used in ceremonies from a federal repository that collects birds already found dead.

“We’re not seeing where these birds are losing feathers, where we would suspect they’re being used in ceremonies,” Wood said.

Both birds are protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Violations of each statute can carry penalties of up to $100,000 and up to a year in prison.

DWR Lt. Jodi Becker recalls one case well. It happened in January just up the road from her home in Utah County.

A neighbor heard two shots and stepped outside onto their property to find a golden eagle in a field and a white SUV speeding away.

Becker got the call but arrived too late. The vehicle was gone, and the bird was dead, hit twice with a small caliber rifle.

“She was resting in an open field,” Becker recalled. “She was not mistaken for anything else. They were using the eagle as target practice.”

Becker said she examined the scene just as if a person had been killed, collecting evidence and bullet casings, documenting footprints and taking photographs, but the case remains unsolved.

“Hopefully someone will come forward,” she said. “It’s extremely disheartening.”