The golden eagle struggled to escape the leghold trap, but his foot was held fast by the trap's steel jaws, and the trap was staked firmly to the ground by a long chain. The large, majestic raptor tried to fly away repeatedly, carrying the heavy trap and chain, but when he reached the end of the length of chain he was violently jerked back to the ground. The trap that caught the eagle had been set to catch coyotes and a dead fox had been placed alongside the trap as bait.
The poor victim was discovered by a group of teenagers and their field instructor who were hiking along a trail in the Henry Mountains of Utah. The group had been enjoying the day as part of a wilderness therapy program for at-risk adolescents. However, they ended up severely shaken by the pitiful scene they encountered. The field instructor contacted the Division of Wildlife Resources who conducted an investigation into the incident including a search of the trapper's home. Evidence at the scene included the fox carcass, some eagle feathers and a small pool of blood. Government issued signs were in the area warning pet owners that traps were set in the vicinity.
According to those included in the case, Phillip Taylor, the man who set the trap and ultimately killed the bird, is an employee of the US Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services (WS) and has worked for them for decades. In apparent violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), Mr. Taylor failed to report the incident to authorities. Further, it appears that he did not possess a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service for the taking of a golden eagle and therefore may have violated the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) too. In addition, baiting a trap is a violation of Utah state law. Although the incident occurred in the fall, no charges have been filed yet. The case is currently being evaluated by the US Attorney's office.
This is not an isolated apparent violation of the MBTA and BGEPA by WS. Another WS employee is believed to have destroyed a golden eagle nest by setting it on fire. The individual is still working for WS, and no action was ever taken against him.
As we have long known, WS field personnel are under extreme pressure to address wildlife damage related problems reported by some farmers and ranchers by killing as many members of the offending species as possible—regardless of cost, humaneness, and the law. At the same time, WS has been criticized by animal protection organizations including the Animal Welfare Institute for its capture and killing of non-target animals, thus they are loath to report such incidents. "An epidemic of overzealous predator control, wanton killing of animals, and lax attention to the law, all hidden from the public eye," was a recent account given by a state wildlife law enforcement officer.
WS personnel must be held accountable. All instances of capture of non-target animals must be reported, and WS needs to deal very strongly with employees who fail to comply with all applicable laws and/or who fail to report every single non-target capture, whether or not it results in the death of the animal caught. And we would hope that the US Attorney's office will proceed with the prosecution of both of these individuals to the fullest extent of the law.