The bald eagle is no longer endangered, and its population has rebounded dramatically in Ohio since 1979 when there were only four known active nesting sites of the regal bird in the state.
But that hasn’t lessened the protections that our national symbol enjoys.
Just ask David B. Huff. Last October, while inspecting his land in Tuscarawas County for groundhogs, the 79-year-old Huff shot and killed a bald eagle from a distance of nearly 100 feet. He then dragged the raptor into a tree line bordering his property.
A witness turned him in. On Tuesday, Huff pleaded guilty in US District Court in Youngstown. As part of a plea agreement, he will now have to pay a $10,000 fine to the court, $10,000 in restitution to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, have the scoped rifle he used destroyed and be forbidden from hunting for five years.
When he is sentenced by US Magistrate Judge Carmen Henderson in October, Huff faces a maximum of one year in prison for the misdemeanor offense, but federal guidelines call for a sentence of somewhere between zero and six months, said Huff’s attorney, Kevin Lundholm.
Huff told the judge that he thought he was shooting a hawk, “but it doesn’t relieve him from liability,” Lundholm said after the hearing. It will be up to the judge to determine if that’s a factor in sentencing.
“The incident was a lapse in judgment, and it’s something that Mr. Huff regrets,” Lundholm said.
Huff was prosecuted under the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Had Huff killed the eagle during breeding season and a hatchling under his care had subsequently died, he could have been charged with a felony and faced stiff evener penalties.
The act prevents hunting, shooting or essentially harming bald eagles in any way. It also prevents the birds from being bought or sold, transported or disturbed, even if they are dead. The restrictions extend to the eagle’s nest and eggs. And if you find an eagle feather on the ground, you can pick it up, but then you have to put it back where you found it.
Bald eagles are similarly protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The extraordinary protections afforded bald eagles stem in part from their cultural significance, said Mags Rheude, wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The raptor is part of the Great Seal of the United States of America, having been adopted by the Continental Congress in 1782. The bald eagle is also associated with the US Postal Service and the Boy Scouts of America and is revered for religious reasons by Native Americans, Rheude said.
Never mind that Benjamin Franklin dissed the bird, calling it “a Bird of bad moral Character,” in a letter to his daughter.
“He does not get his Living honestly,” Franklin wrote. “You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”
Rheude said Franklin’s motivations have been debated and that perhaps he viewed the bald eagle as symbolic of the recently overthrown British monarchy or that he was simply being sarcastic.
Apparently, a Virginia man had a similar disdain for bald eagles as Franklin when he shot and killed one of the birds in 2017, claiming “he was upset it had been hunting and taking fish from a pond located on his property,” according to court documents quoted in an abcnews.com article.
The 62-year-old man, who also admitted in his guilty plea to running over the bird with his all-terrain vehicle, stated in court documents that “too much emphasis is placed on bald eagle protection because the birds are a threat,” according to the article. He was later sentenced to a month of house arrest and 100 hours of community service, along with fines and restitution totaling $2,000, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Rheude said if a bald eagle does become a problem, say, to farmers, there is a process for mitigating the situation, but she does not believe those measures ever include killing the bird.
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She said protecting the bald eagle is also justified for environmental reasons. The Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Act was passed to help restore the eagle population, which had been decimated by a hunting, she said. After the numbers improved, they went down again as a result of the harmful effects of DDT.
A cooperative effort to protect the eagle has brought the population back to more abundant levels, but, because they eat a lot of fish and are near the top of the food chain, the birds’ health remains a good indicator of water quality, she said .
In 2007, the bald eagle was taken off the Endangered Species List, Rheude said. “They were there a long time.”
Lundholm said his research indicates bald eagle shootings in the United States are more common in the West.
“It seems like in the western states there is a kind of a market for memorabilia,” he said. “Feathers. Heels. That sort of stuff that they make into some sort of artifact.”
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