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'Senseless' killing of another eagle in South Dakota ends its tracking of wide-ranging travel

Golden eagle. Stock image

PIERRE, S.D. - Two years ago a pair of golden eagle chicks born in Alaska’s Denali National Park were fitted with satellite tracking tags, last week one of those eagles, a male, was shot and killed in Sully County.

The eagle’s sibling died of natural causes before it turned a year old. That’s actually pretty typical. By many estimates, roughly 70 percent of raptors born in a given year will die before their first birthday. They either starve, get injured while hunting, get killed and eaten by another predator or get sick. High mortality among young raptors is one of the reasons why the killing of the eagle in Sully County is such a big deal.

“It was really exciting,” said Steve Lewis, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who was working on the tracking project the eagle was part of. “To have it end in a senseless death like this is just really unfortunate.”

Scott Larson, USFWS ecological services field supervisor for the Dakotas, said there have actually been three other eagles found dead in and around central South Dakota in the last five weeks.

It’s rare enough that an eagle survives its first year and rarer still that one of those survivors carries a tracking tag as part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study. Lewis said there are three agencies hoping to use data from the study; USFWS, U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service. One application for the study’s data could be to help find more eagle friendly sites for wind farms, Lewis said.

Both golden and bald eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle protection act as well as the migratory bird treaty act, so killing one is a felony. The crime can land a person in prison for up to a year or get them a $5,000 fine upon the first conviction. Fines and prison time double for a second conviction.

Over the course of its nearly two years of life, the eagle killed in Sully County had travelled as far north as Alaska’s arctic coast and had followed the Rocky Mountains as far south as the Wyoming-Colorado border. That’s actually pretty typical of the eagles Lewis has tracked as part of his study. There’s lots of food up on the arctic coast in the summer, Lewis said, and most of the Alaskan golden eagles stay in the Rocky Mountains or west of them during the winter.

This year, though, the eagle killed in Sully County found the Missouri River while passing through Montana. He followed the river’s course south and east through North Dakota, eventually making its way to the Pierre area.

“This is the first one I’ve tagged that made a left turn into South Dakota,” Lewis said.

The eagle had been hanging around just north of Pierre since October 2018, Lewis said. That is, until one day last week when he was perched in a shelterbelt and got shot. He was the sixth eagle Lewis tagged in 2017 to die. There are three still flying.

The eagle’s carcass was found on private land Jan. 29, after the tracking tag started broadcasting a “dead” signal. A USFWS special agent and a biologist from the Pierre office went to check on the signal. The body was later X-rayed and found to be full of shotgun pellets.

Larson said USFWS and the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department have opened investigations into the killings but the cases might be hard to solve. It is unclear if all four killings are related, Larson said.

Game, Fish and Parks has asked for the public’s help in the investigation and is offering a monetary reward of up to $2,500 for information leading to the successful arrest and conviction of the people associated with the shooting of the eagles. Tipsters can remain anonymous.

Sharing tips

If you have any information about this or any eagle shooting in South Dakota please contact the Service’s Pierre, South Dakota, Office of Law Enforcement at 605-224-9045 or lawenforcement@fws.gov as well as the SDGFP Turn In Poachers (TIPs) Hotline at 1-888-OVERBAG (1-888-683-7224) or online at gfp.sd.gov/tips.

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