People continue to threaten the state’s bald and golden eagle population, despite federal law protecting the once-endangered birds of prey.
A total of at least five bald or golden eagles have died this year at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Nebraska as a result of human activity. Two eagles have been confirmed shot. Three others died showing tissue damage consistent with a gunshot wound. There was not a bullet in any of the birds, though, which suggests it passed through, said Brett Bowser, a federal wildlife officer at the refuge. In each incident, citizens found the eagles and reported them to Bowser.
The shootings are likely intentional, said Joel Jorgensen, the nongame bird program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
“(Eagles are) really difficult to confuse with much of anything else,” he said. “Particularly anything that’s legal to shoot.”
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act restricts people from killing or otherwise disturbing eagles or their parts, nests or eggs. The penalty is a $100,000 fine, imprisonment for one year, or both, for a first offense. Penalties continue to climb for additional offenses. A second violation is considered a felony.
Only Native Americans can legally possess eagle parts, which they use for religious tribal ceremonies. They must submit an application to the National Eagle Repository in Denver to receive them.
There are no suspects in the Valentine refuge eagle attacks, and no one has contacted officials with more information.
“It’s hard to follow up on,” Jorgensen said. “We don’t have the resources to have a person standing watch over every eagle.”
Betsy Finch, the executive director and rehabilitation coordinator of Raptor Recovery Nebraska, said the shootings are troubling but not surprising. The nonprofit group cares for injured birds, including eagles, hawks, owls and falcons.
“(It’s) more common than you’d think,” she said. “More common than I’d like it to be.”
Typically, Raptor Recovery sees about 20 eagles each year. The center has already seen close to a dozen in 2013. Some were shot, while others suffered from collisions or poisoning from lead or another toxin, Finch said. She estimated that 90 percent of all birds that come to them are harmed as a result of human activities.
When eagles die of unnatural causes, it can affect both reproduction rates and the food chain.
Despite these setbacks, the eagle population in Nebraska is growing, said Jorgensen. Now there are usually between 800 and 1,600 eagles of all kinds in the state, he said.
Prior to 1991, there were no successful breeding attempts in Nebraska for close to a century. But officials reported 103 active nests last year, up from 91 in 2011.
“We expect that number to keep stairstepping,” Jorgensen said.
Anyone with information about eagle attacks can contact Bowser at 402-322-0040.
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