In 1782, the bald eagle became America’s national bird when its image was emblazoned on the country’s Great Seal. Legend has it that a group of bald eagles circled over a battlefield during the Revolutionary War, emitting raucous calls the Americans took to be cries for freedom. At that time, as many as 100,000 nesting eagles were thought to exist.
Being a national symbol did not translate into protection, however. By 1963, shooting deaths, DDT exposure, and lead ingestion had taken a heavy toll, and bald eagle numbers had fallen to fewer than 490 nesting pairs. Fortunately, the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act (as well as the earlier Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act) and a ban on DDT saved the species from extinction. Nearly 9,800 nesting pairs were estimated to exist in the contiguous United States in 2006, along with 40,000–50,000 more in Alaska.
Despite this recovery, bald eagles continue to suffer injury or death as a result of human activities—such as the use of steel-jaw leghold traps. It is well established that such traps capture, maim, and kill nontarget species, including eagles.
This fact was illustrated by an incident near Bonneauville, Pennsylvania, in early February, in which a bald eagle was photographed with a trap affixed to her foot. The photographs, featured in multiple news stories, triggered a local search for the eagle in hopes of finding her in time to remove the trap before it could cause serious injury or starvation due to the eagle’s inability to hunt.
Three days later, an eagle with a trap on her foot was found by a hiker, entangled high in a tree on the Fort Indiantown Gap US Army facility in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Military installation staff were able to remove the trap, after which the eagle flew to the ground before flying away, reportedly without serious injury. Often, however, the extent of such an injury (which can restrict blood supply and lead to gangrene and loss of toes or an entire foot, making it virtually impossible to catch prey) is not immediately apparent.
The trap was turned over to the Pennsylvania Game Commission for inspection. It did not include a trapper identification tag, which is required by Pennsylvania law, making it unlikely that the trapper will be found or cited. A comparison of the trap to the photographs from Bonneauville led PGC officials to conclude they were dealing with the same bird (although others, including some local wildlife rehabilitators, did not agree, given the considerable distance between Fort Indiantown Gap and Bonneauville).
In the end, the eagle (and possibly another) experienced what an untold number of raptors and other wildlife experience every year: suffering grievous injury or death to become another “nontarget species” statistic of the trapping industry. Steel-jaw leghold traps are barbaric and have been banned or subject to severe restrictions in more than 100 countries. The only way to ensure that our nation’s symbol and countless other target and nontarget animals are no longer caught in such cruel devices is for us to ban them, too.