Considering all the celebration of the bald eagle’s recovery, it’s hard to believe that a generation ago they were hunted and killed like vermin.
The recent removal of the bald eagle from the endangered-species list should be a cautionary tale, reminding us how reckless we were to let our national bird decline to the point where its very survival looked doubtful. But we’re also entitled to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The worst danger appears to be over, and news reports suggest that saving the eagle was fairly straightforward, a matter of getting the science right and then eliminating harmful substances— especially DDT—from the bird’s habitat, with cheering on the sidelines by all.
But the full story is darker and more twisted. There was a time, less than 40 years ago, when eagles were dying not simply from the indiscriminate use of poisons but also from being hunted and killed like vermin. It’s no exaggeration to say that in the early 1970s some Americans were at war with eagles.
The tactics used back then are almost unthinkable today. So is the sociopolitical climate, as viewed from our perspective of widespread distrust of government combined with a near-fanatic concern with security. This was a world in which citizens and the federal government were so mutually at ease that the National Audubon Society could act as the eyes and ears of public servants who wanted to do the right thing; in which just about anyone could stroll into a federal building and wangle an audience with a high government official; in which the U.S. Air Force played detective; in which conser-
vationists separated by thousands of miles joined hands to solve a shameful series of crimes.
The story began as a simple spring outing. On May 1, 1971, two 18-year-old high school students, Gordon Krause and Bruce Wampler, were hiking in Jackson Canyon, about 10 miles southwest of Casper, Wyoming. High, deep, and re-
mote, the canyon was prime eagle habitat, but this would be no ordinary day of birdwatching. In a dry streambed the boys came upon an eagle carcass. It was “wrapped around a tree,” Krause recalled, “washed there by running water earlier,” recognizable as a bald eagle from its white head and tail. “We walked on a few more yards, and found another. We thought it was kind of strange.” In all, Krause and Wampler discov-
ered seven dead eagles that afternoon.
Word of the find reached the Murie Audubon Society (as the local chapter is called), which led additional searches in and around the canyon. More carcasses turned up, a total of 22. Half were bald eagles—the national emblem, with its own law to protect it, as well as an endangered species whose pop-
ulation had dwindled to 400 to 500 breeding pairs. To pre-
serve their evidentiary value, more than a dozen carcasses were stored in a secret location: a freezer at the Casper house of Bayard “Bart” Rea, a geologist and Audubon mem-
ber. Rea was living in a region dominated by stockmen, some of whom regarded eagles mainly as pests—an attitude rooted in fear (the demand for wool was declining) and ignorance (the eagles were preying on lambs, an uncommon occur-
rence, and there were too few eagles in existence to do much damage anyway). Accordingly, Rea locked the freezer and took the key to work with him, so that, as he recalls, his “wife could not be intimidated by anyone showing up from the state [government].”
Audubon’s executive vice-president, Charles Callison, brought the matter to the attention of his old friend Nathaniel Reed, the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks under President Richard Nixon. (Three years later I joined Reed’s staff, where I stayed until administrations changed in January 1977.) Reed was a Re-
publican at a time when it was not shocking to say the name of the party and conservationist in the same breath. One of his duties was enforcing a precursor to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which forbade harming species certified to be in danger of extinction, among them the American bald eagle. Reed remembers “having my hands full trying to assemble a staff,” but he made the eagle killings his top priority, with full support from his boss, Interior Secretary Rogers Morton.
Bart Rea and son, Dan, with some of the poisoned eagles, which were attached to poles to make it easier to carry them out of the canyon. The birds were then placed in bags and kept in Rae’s freezer until U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents could claim them and begin their investigation.
|Courtesy of Murie Audubon Society
The dead birds bore no wounds, but conservationists could make an educated guess as to what had happened: The eagles had ingested poison meant for animals—coyotes, above all—that preyed on sheep. Rea turned the frozen carcasses over to Charles H. Lawrence, chief of the law-enforcement division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who had flown to Wyoming to investigate. Lawrence had the birds packed in dry ice, placed in cartons, and sent air ex-
press to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Wash-
ington, D.C. Necropsies bore out the suspicion: The eagles had died after swallowing large amounts of thallium sulfate, a virulent poison.
Lawrence learned that a number of local ranchers had treated antelope carcasses with thallium sulfate—enough of it, by one official’s estimate, “to kill every animal in the state” of Wyo-
ming—and had put out the doctored meat as bait. The prime offender was Van Irvine, a rancher who had once headed the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. In the end the feds de-
clined to prosecute Irvine because the deaths seemed inci-
dental to the purpose of controlling predators. A justice of the peace fined Irvine $675 for violating various state laws, such as one banning the use of game animals as bait. Fines for other offenders were similarly low, but the point had been made.
In the meantime, however, a more alarming crime wave was coming to light. Eagles typically eat fish, waterfowl, small mammals, and carrion, but some ranchers insisted they were also busy taking lambs. Acting on that conviction, ranchers had once hunted the birds from planes. The Bald Eagle Pro-
tection Act of 1940 had banned all forms of intentional killing, and a 1962 amendment to the law had granted a lesser degree of protection to golden eagles: They could be “taken” in order to protect livestock, but only with Interior’s permis-
sion, and no such permission had been given to anyone in two years.
After the first eagle-killing case, however, rumors were circulating in Wyoming that an air taxi company head-
quartered in the town of Buffalo was making itself available for eagle extermination, and that one of its biggest customers was a prominent rancher named Herman Werner.
Back in Washington, Reed worked closely with Lawrence, the Fish and Wildlife law-enforcement chief, who was famous for always carrying a gun, even during meetings in Reed’s office. At Lawrence’s urging, Reed arranged for an FBI-trained undercover agent to go to Wyoming and impersonate a cowboy. “The guy was a westerner,” Reed recalls, “and he fit right in.” So much so that Herman Werner had no idea his new hired hand was a mole. The agent’s bunkmates told him that dozens of dead eagles lay in a heap nearby, but a federal judge refused to issue a search warrant, presumably because the evidence presented by the secret agent was hearsay.
At this point, however, conservationists caught a break. While Bart Rea and one of his Audubon colleagues were at the Cas-
per airport, taking custody of yet another dead eagle, they noticed a man working on a helicopter in which they could see a shotgun and spent shells. Rea’s colleague took a snapshot. The man, perhaps aware that he had been photographed, apparently began to worry. “Somebody was going to get hung from a tree,” he later explained to a Senate subcommittee. “And they would have thrown the whole blame on me.” His anxiety mounted over the summer. One day at Interior headquarters in Washington, Reed’s secretary announced that a nervous man had just shown up, wanting very much to see him. (In that innocent era, anyone could walk into the Interior building, with little or no screening.) Reed agreed to give him a few minutes. “I’m the man you’re looking for,” he said, and he began to cry. His name was James O. Vogan, he flew helicopters, and, fearing for his livelihood, he was willing to talk if granted immunity.
On August 1 Vogan went public, testifying over two days before a Senate subcommittee. Between the fall of 1970 and the spring of 1971, he explained, Buffalo Flying Service owner Doyle Vaughn had employed him to fly a chopper from which sharpshooters fired 12-gauge shotguns, bringing down more than 500 bald and golden eagles over Wyoming and Colorado. Vogan added that some eagles fell to earth still alive, so that on the ground “you’d better kick them . . . and have a gun to protect yourself.” Ranchers were paying a bounty of between $10 and $25 per bird, and Vogan con-
firmed that Werner was a major client.
Werner, who owned what was then the largest herd of sheep in Wyoming, was Van Irvine’s father-in-law. “I think that helps to reinforce how inbred the culture of eagle hatred was among sheep ranchers at the time,” says Rea. “These were systematic, orchestrated killings.” Vogan corroborated the pseudo ranch hand’s report by testifying that on Werner’s ranch he had seen a cache of 65 dead eagles, “piled high as a haystack.”
The story made The New York Times and The Washington Post, along with Time, Life, and Newsweek; CBS devoted a segment to it on Walter Cronkite’s nightly newscast; envi-
ronmental writer Michael Frome referred to the bad guys as “The Wyoming Helicopter Monsters”; and Pat Oliphant drew topical cartoons. In the meantime, federal officials had been wrestling with a challenge: how to get the goods on Werner, who was not about to let outsiders inspect his land.
Bags holding the remains of poisoned eagles found in May 1971 near Caspar, Wyoming. Within weeks 22 bald and golden eagles had been discovered.
|Courtesy of the Murie Audubon Society
Enter the U.S. Air Force, which was interested, says Reed, in seeing whether its new military surveillance system was adaptable to domestic use. In an effort to pin down the number of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, an aircraft had recently flown over the park taking pictures. (I’ve been unable to find records for any of these flights, but an Air Force spokesman suggested that the craft might have been either an RF-4 or RF-101 reconnaissance plane.)
Unfortunately, the camera couldn’t distinguish grizzlies from other bears. But it occurred to Reed that a cache of dead eagles might be a less ambiguous target. The Air Force was willing, and the flights were made. Within days, Reed says, two brigadier generals came to his office with photographs and map coordinates. An infrared camera had captured a hot spot indicating a mass of decomposing bodies. “There are your eagles,” one of them said. This was enough, Reed recalls, to generate a search warrant. The day after Vogan finished testifying in Washington, federal agents came to Werner’s ranch, where they used a power shovel to uncover a pile of eagle carcasses, buried under the bones of other animals.
There was still a hitch. The U.S. attorney for Wyoming balked at bringing a case against the rancher because he was sure that Herman Werner would never be convicted by a Wyoming jury. Werner, like Vogan before him, made a surprise visit to Reed’s office. “He simply bolted in,” Reed remembers, “a wiry man wearing a Stetson hat. He said he was going to get me. I said quietly, ‘Before you get me, please tell me who you are.’ He said, ‘I am Herman Werner, the man who protects his sheep by killing eagles. And you don’t know anything about eagles.’” Reed refused to discuss the case with the rancher.
After returning to Wyoming, Werner began to feel the heat. One incident in particular captured the changing mood. The chimney of his house happened to be decorated with a pair of concrete eagles, and someone climbed up and draped black cloth over them. Still, the U.S. attorney refused to act, and Werner may have thought he could tough it out. Late in 1972 the publisher of the alternative newspaper High Country News complained about justice not being served as long as “the central figure in the whole matter, Herman Werner, jokingly (and smugly) walks the streets of Casper unprosecuted and unruffled.”
A few months later Werner’s luck ran out. Reed appealed personally to U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who ordered that the prosecution go forward. On August 6, 1973, a few months before the trial was to start, Werner died from injuries sustained in a two-car collision in Rawlins, Wyoming.
While the case against Werner was pending, a federal judge had fined Doyle Vaughn of the Buffalo Flying Service a paltry $500 after he pleaded guilty to 75 counts of killing eagles. Pilot James Vogan had received immunity from prosecution, but not from ill will. He complained of being unable to get work, and a former president of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association took a swing at him in the association’s maga-
zine: “He is a prime candidate for the Liar of the Year Award.” Vogan sued for libel, asking for $1.2 million in actual dam-
ages and another $1 million in punitive damages. In 1974 a jury found for Vogan, awarding him $55,000, but the judge declared the amount excessive and directed Vogan to accept $10,000 or face a new trial. He held out for another trial but eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. Later, however, he seems to have reverted to his old ways. At the end of 1971, Congress had passed a law banning the shooting of any animal from an aircraft. Ten years later, the Casper Star-Tribune reported that Vogan’s son had pleaded guilty to a federal charge of shooting coyotes from a helicopter and that a warrant was out to arrest the elder Vogan for the same crime.
The 1970–71 events in Wyoming and Washington essentially brought an end to the purposeful killing of eagles. Careless killings declined, too, after the Nixon administration banned the use of DDT and restricted the use of predacides (chemical compounds that kill predators), including thallium sulfate. The Wyoming establishment came around, too. At the height of the controversy, Governor Stanley Hathaway admitted that “the eagles were never really a serious threat to the sheep-
men.” In 1986 the Star-Tribune went so far as to publish a column headlined “Eagles symbolize Wyoming’s uniqueness.”
Today their national population stands at more than 7,000 nesting pairs—a turnaround so dramatic that many conser-
vation groups, Audubon included, embraced the bird’s complete removal from the endangered-species list, which was announced on June 28, 2007. “We think the delisting was fully warranted,” says Greg Butcher, Audubon’s director of bird conservation. “The bald eagle has recovered throughout its range, in 49 states [all except Hawaii, where it is not native]. The bird is still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and the important thing now is to make sure that the law is interpreted correctly. The law makes it illegal to ‘disturb’ the birds, and we want that word to be interpreted in a commonsense way, to mean bothering and not just taking or killing. Otherwise, we may have to seek to amend the act.”
To ascertain the sheep industry’s attitude to delisting, I spoke with Tom France, director of the Northern Rockies office of the National Wildlife Federation. He pointed out that sheep ranching has declined markedly since the 1970s, leaving “a much-reduced opportunity for conflict with eagles. And I think the [sheep ranching] culture has changed to the extent that I would be stunned if ranchers now started going after bald eagles.”
Bart Rea agrees that the climate in his home state has changed. “There has been an immense amount of public education since the 1970s,” he says, “including an emphasis on the bald eagle being primarily a scavenger and only sec-
ondarily a predator.” A sign of the esteem in which Wyoming-
ites now hold eagles can be found on the state tourist bur-
eau’s website; it touts wildlife watching as an activity that tourists might want to come to the state to enjoy. To make its point, the site displays a bald eagle photo.
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.
Back to Top