Bald eagle poisonings bewilder investigators

From Predator Defense: “We’ve been working this case since 2003. This article was published in 2004. Raptors and mammals continue to be poisoned with 1080 and fenthion. Just another example of the ranching industry in the American West. For the most part poisoning of wildlife goes unreported because carcasses are usually so degraded when found that it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of death.”

A judge's ruling keeps federal agencies from cooperating to find who is
killing the birds with tainted sheep meat

Monday, May 10, 2004
MARK LARABEE

For more than a decade, someone has been poisoning bald eagles in the
mid-Willamette Valley.Since 1991, 18 bald eagles -- including three this
year -- have been
found dead in a 25-mile radius of Linn, Benton and Lane county farmland.

Fifteen had the same poison and sheep meat in their bellies.

"It's a fact that somebody is putting out dead sheep and putting
thispesticide on them to kill bald eagles," said Chris Brong, who heads the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's law enforcement office in Wilsonville.
"I firmly believe it's a sheep rancher."

Despite that assertion, wildlife agents have no idea who's doing it.They
hypothesize that it's someone upset with losing lambs.

>>>Such tensions between ranchers and wildlife have gone on for
>>>generations in the West. On the Willamette Valley's fertile grasslands,
>>>ranchers and natural predators such as cougars, bears, coyotes and
>>>eagles are in an ever-shifting battle over dominion.
>>>
>>>Exacerbating the problem is that bald eagles love Oregon. Wildlife
>>>experts counted 416 nesting pairs last year as the eagles flock to
theNorthwest in winter looking for food.

They scavenge on road kill and prey on small animals and fish. Theywill take
advantage of the easiest food source, be it ground squirrelsor newborn
lambs.

Federal wildlife agents say the poisonings are more than a simplecrime.

The bald eagle, the national symbol, was listed as endangered in 1978after
shootings, pesticides, habitat destruction and pollution caused its numbers
to dwindle to fewer than 500 nesting pairs in the Lower 48.

The protections worked, and there are now more than 6,000 nesting pairs and
more than 20,000 individual birds in the Lower 48. Considered a rare success
in the struggle for recovery, the bald eagle came off the endangered species
list in 1995 but still has protections under a federal designation of
threatened.

The poisonings have pitted one federal agency against another. Theyhave
galvanized wildlife advocates against a well-entrenched,taxpayer-funded
system for controlling predators. And the situation has ranchers and farming
advocates walking a razor's edge between outrage
and explanation -- one in which they say they abhor what's being done while
explaining that unchecked predators can devastate a farmer's income.

One pin, one dead eagle

Brong's team of three wildlife investigators works from a
nondescriptindustrial park in Wilsonville. It's there that he points to
aposter-board map of Oregon sheep country dotted with colored pins and case
numbers. Some show where a dead bald eagle was found. Others mark
the nearby Cascade foothills where eagles roost.

Brong, who has been with the agency since 1993, was a U.S. Bureau of Land
Management law enforcement officer for 10 years before that and has worked
for the federal government since he was a 19-year-old forest
ranger. He came to Oregon last year, looked at case trends, and found the
eagle poisonings unsolved.

Fifteen of the 18 dead eagles were poisoned with fenthion, a heavily
regulated poison used to control parasites on cattle and pigs, he
said.Oregon banned its use in 2002, and Brong notes it was never allowed for
sheep.

Because investigators figured a rancher was targeting eagles, they turned to
the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help. The agency's Wildlife Services
program keeps animals out of airport lands, prevents beavers from doing work
that floods roads and deals with problem animals, such as a cougar close to
a schoolyard.

The program also teaches farmers husbandry and helps them apply a variety of
"hazing" methods to deter predators from damaging crops and herds. Livestock
lost to predators, mostly coyotes, reaches a value of about $71 million a
year nationally, according to the USDA.

The agency also traps, shoots and poisons predators. In fiscal 2002, the
agency killed 5,689 coyotes in Oregon, most by shooting them from the air.
It cannot kill eagles.

The USDA, citing a federal judge's order, has said it cannot cooperatewith
investigators looking into the eagle deaths.

In 2003, the judge ordered the USDA to keep quiet about its clients after it
was sued by the Texas Farm Bureau and three farmers. An environmental group
sought the names through the Freedom of Information Act. Farmers said their
privacy would be invaded if the USDA revealed who was using government
trappers.

Brong said the lack of cooperation from a sister agency is frustrating."They
know that there are certain ranchers that want to kill eagles,and they won't
tell us," he said. "Their function is to go out and kill wildlife, and my
function is to protect the wildlife, so we're kind of in conflict."

Dave Williams, who heads the USDA's Wildlife Services in Oregon, saidUSDA
employees are wildlife people who think the poisonings are deplorable. He
said it's frustrating for him, but he must follow the court order.

"Prior to this injunction, we could have said that this is the area that
eagles have been hard on livestock this year," he said. "If we were asked in
years past who might be doing this, we would tell them the areas and it
would be very focused, because it would be with individuals who had
contacted us."

While the Texas ruling is under appeal, the U.S. Justice Department is
seeking clarification on how far the ruling should go. A Justice official in
Washington, D.C., said privately that he would be surprised if the judge
meant to hinder criminal investigations.

No conclusive proof

There is no conclusive proof that eagles are taking sheep in great numbers,
let alone putting a dent in business. Williams said his agency had had no
complaints this year. In the past, he said individual ranchers have been
greatly affected by bald eagles. But no one interviewed for this story had
actually seen an eagle kill a lamb.

Cleve Dumdi, 70, of Junction City is one of the largest sheep ranchersin the
Willamette Valley, with more than 8,000 animals. He's been ranching for 35
years and has two sons in the business. Dumdi said it is a common belief
among farmers that eagles will "swoop down" and take a
newborn lamb, although he's never seen it.

"I hope I'm not the one who finds out who's doing this," Dumdi said."It's
throwing a black eye on the industry, and I don't like that."

Frank Isaacs, a senior faculty research assistant at Oregon State
University, has conducted the state's annual eagles' nest survey since1979.
He said eagles mostly feed on fish, waterfowl, dead livestock and
afterbirth, a conclusion supported by federal scientists who studied the
feeding pattern of Willamette Valley eagles in the late 1980s.

"The (sheep) either die naturally, or the coyote's killing them in thenight,
and at dawn, the eagle's standing out there and the eagle gets accused,"
Isaacs said. "There's no doubt that an eagle can kill a lamb,but I don't
think they have to, because there's so much food available."


Isaacs noted that one reason the eagle has come so far is because ranchers
have given them the room and respect they needed to prosper.

"There's a certain amount of damage that comes with the territory,"said Greg
Addington of the Oregon Farm Bureau. "Most guys enjoy wildlife until it
becomes a significant problem. There's a certain amount of
pride in having wildlife at your place."

Addington said it's frustrating to hear law enforcement making premature
conclusions. "It may very well be that it's a rancher involved in this, but
they should hold their tongue until they know for sure," he said.

Looking for carcasses

The wind is whipping south, pushing knee-high rye grass in waves,driving
rain deep into the soil with percussive bursts.At a crossroads west of
Harrisburg, Brooks Fahy jumps a roadside ditch to tack a sheet of paper to a
telephone pole.

"Who's poisoning our pets and wildlife?" asks the flier, which includes the
telephone number for Predator Defense, the nonprofit he directs.

Fahy and other wildlife advocates rail against the practice of trapping and
poisoning. He said the dead eagles are proof that government predator
control perpetuates an outdated attitude -- that man is king and wildlife
cutting into profit should be stopped.

He crisscrosses the vast valley, "establishing a presence," hoping to find a
poisoned lamb carcass or meet someone who could help break the bald eagle
case. "People reluctant to call in a tip to law enforcement might be willing
to call us," he said.

He scans fields with binoculars, looking for the fluttering brown and white
plumage of a dead eagle. He said he realizes he's chasing a ghost,but
worries that more eagles have been killed than have been discovered.

"An eagle ends up dead in the sagebrush, and you're not going to find it,"
he said.

Bob Sallinger of the Portland Audubon Society said he thinks Fahy's efforts
will pay off.

"This is a species we've almost lost," he said. "I do have sympathy for
folks because a lot of them are struggling, but killing eagles is just way
over the line."

Mark Larabee: 503-294-7664; marklarabee at news.oregonian.com

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2 thoughts on “Bald eagle poisonings bewilder investigators

  1. Yes I remember it was a sheep rancher in Texas, either just before or just after the Bald Eagle was put on the endangered species list, who hired a pilot and shooter to fire on eagles from their small plane. Sheep ranchers have to be the most paranoid group on the planet. In New Zealand they still shoot the endangered native parrot, the Kea, because altho mainly vegetarian, they have been known to land on sheep’s backs and peck them trying to get at fat deposits.
    I’ve had it with ranchers and their profit margins and hunters with their need to have predator control so they can have a bountiful supply of deer and elk.

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