A population census of bald eagles of the lower 48 states inspires hope. The 2021 count reveals a wildlife conservation story of success. Bald eagles have increased from the alarming lows in the 1960s. The use of DDT, a pesticide banned in 1972, was responsible for direct deaths and low reproduction in many birds, but the effects were seen alarmingly in the bald eagle, our national bird and our nation’s symbol.
Good news of the increase as we reflect on the 50 years since the Wyoming eagle killings of 1971.
On May 1, 1971 two Casper high school youth traveled to Jackson Canyon a few miles southwest of Casper to hike and rock climb. A mile into the canyon, they found the remains of seven bald eagles later determined poisoned with thallium sulfate. Shortly afterward, 25 dead eagles, all shot, were found piled in a ditch near Rawlings. These discoveries and the ensuing investigations revealed an organized killing campaign of malicious, willful, and callous destruction beyond imagination involving men of position and power and men who previously demonstrated a misplaced sense of propriety as leasers of public land.
Within days of the May 1 discovery, a federal wildlife law enforcement agent met with members of the Murie Audubon Society of Casper and a regional representative of the National Audubon Society. Rumors of eagle killings far greater in number and more sophisticated in style than those discovered in Jackson Canyon eddied around the state. Investigation followed, letters from citizens outraged about unchecked “predator” control and school children pleading for the suffering eagles reached government offices at all levels. US Senator McGee of Wyoming called for a special session, and hearings commenced June 1971 in our nation’s capital.
The killers were after eagles, bald and golden, one method was poisoning the other aerial gunning. The poison, thallium sulfate, was stuffed into 20 poached pronghorns with, as one authority stated, enough poison in each pronghorn to kill every animal in the state. Those questioned said the poison was intended for their archdevil, the coyote, not eagles. Unable to establish willful intent to kill eagles, federally protected since 1940, the authorities filed poaching offenses. The killing operation proceeded unhampered. Onto the ranch the men arrived with dead eagles in hand as proof for the $25 illegal bounty until one man, the pilot, a former WWII fighter pilot and employee of a Wyoming-owned flying service began to feel uneasy as piles of rotting eagles built.
This story, detailed in George Laycock’s 1973 Autumn of the Eagle and thoroughly covered as events unfolded in Wyoming-bred High Country News, is complicated in detail but not in deadly result for nearly 800 eagles in Wyoming alone. The pilot sought immunity and gave full testimony. The hearings recount, in gruesome detail, the long war on eagles. The pilot kept a notebook. One day, 14 eagles, another 29, then 39. So many he lost count. Commenting on the flying skills of the golden, the pilot said it was not difficult to get the gunner in position. The bald, on the other hand, was capable of skillful maneuvers and an entire box of shells was spent, though one needed to kick the bird to verify its death.
A tough bird indeed.
This is our history, though not exclusively. Views and perceptions, for many, have changed regarding birds of prey in these last 50 years. We see raptors as important members of our natural community rather than distorted characters embodying devilment, spite, waste, and revenge. Human qualities. Our creator knitted an animal skilled at hunting to provide for itself and its offspring. In Wyoming there are people past and present who dedicate time and treasure tending to injured raptors. Through the persistent work of conservationist and wildlife agency personnel we grasp at the hope in the recent census report, and, for some, we aspire to extend protection for all wildlife from deliberate and merciless killing.