Utah wildlife managers are investigating the mysterious deaths of four bald eagles in northern Utah. The bald eagles succumbed to comparable symptoms, all during the past two weeks.
The four birds were brought into The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in very poor health. Three of the eagles were thought to be in good enough health to be nursed back to health, but couldn’t be saved. All four birds died within days after suffering body tremors and then paralysis.
The bald eagle is the national bird and national animal of the United States. Threatened with extinction in the continental U.S., it was placed on the federal government’s list of endangered species in the later part of the 20th century. Since then, bald eagle populations have recovered and the species has been removed from the list of endangered and threatened species as of 2007.
The executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, DaLyn Erickson, said, “It has been a hard week for us. With any animal, but especially a national symbol like the bald eagle, to see them struggling and thrashing about and not being able to save them is a hard thing to go through.”
The bald eagles were found between Dec. 1 through the 10, in four separate counties of Utah: Box Elder, Tooele, Utah and Weber. A wildlife spokesman stated that the birds being found in a widespread area only deepens the mystery.
Bald eagles subsist mainly on fish, swooping down and snatching them from the water. The Great Salt Lake, with its freshwater bays filled with carp, attracts migrating bald eagles during the winter.
The wildlife disease coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Leslie McFarlane, does not believe that the eagles were intentionally killed. One possible cause of the mysterious deaths of four of Utah’s bald eagles, is encephalitis caused by the West Nile Virus which is known to create symptoms of seizures, head tremors and blindness in bald eagles. McFarlane believes that it is too late in the season for that to be the cause of death. The team is not ruling any possibility out, including intentional poisoning. Bald eagles are a protected species making it an important rule to review any potential signs of a criminal action that may have caused the deaths.
Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, killing a bald eagle is punishable with a maximum fine of $5,000 or a sentence of one year in jail along with a fine of $10,000. Felony convictions can bring a fine of up to $250,000 or two years in prison. In addition, the Act provides rewards for information that leads to an arrest and conviction of its violation.
According to Erickson, the rehab center has seen other bald eagles admitted, but never this many so closely together. McFarlane agreed, saying that in 10 years with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, she has never seen such a rash of bald eagle deaths.
A necropsy has been performed on one eagle to date. The other three birds that died will be examined next week. The results of those necropsy tests will likely take two weeks. “We’ve got to wait until the laboratories can take a good look at each of them,” McFarlane said. Until then, Utah wildlife authorities will remain mystified as why their bald eagles are dying.
By Jennifer Pfalz