A recent population census of bald eagles in the lower 48 states inspires hope. The 2021 count reveals a wildlife conservation success story. Bald eagle populations have increased from the alarming lows of the 1960s when the widespread use of DDT — now banned — pushed our national bird and our nation’s symbol to the brink of extinction.
The good news is particularly welcome as we approach a grim anniversary: It’s been 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. It was later determined that the birds had been poisoned with thallium sulfate. Shortly afterward, 25 dead eagles, all shot, were found piled in a ditch near Rawlins.
These discoveries, and the ensuing investigations, revealed an organized campaign of malicious, willful and callous destruction beyond imagination involving men of power with a misplaced sense of propriety as leasees 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. U.S. Sen. Gale McGee, a Wyoming Democrat, called for a special session, and hearings commenced June 1971 in our nation’s capital.
The killers were after eagles, bald and golden. Some they killed by poisoning, others by 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 archenemy, the coyote, not eagles. Unable to establish willful intent to kill eagles — federally protected since 1940 — the authorities filed poaching charges.
The killing operation proceeded unhampered. Onto the ranch the men arrived with dead eagles in hand to claim the $25 illegal bounty until one man — a former WWII fighter pilot and employee of a Wyoming-owned flying service — began to feel uneasy as piles of rotting eagles grew.
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. The results, however, were deadly simple for nearly 800 eagles in Wyoming alone.
The pilot ultimately 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, then another 29, then 39 — so many that 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 could require an entire box of shells to bring down. Once on the ground the assassins still had to kick birds to verify their deaths.
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.
Today, there are people 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.