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Extra Incite
Cold Case
A series of osprey killings in Oregon fuel a legislative campaign for fiercer penalties.

Audubon Society of Portland Care Center
With a bullet wound her right wing, this osprey was euthanized at the Audubon Society of Portland Care Center shortly after this photograph was taken.

There’s a freezer at the Audubon Society of Portland that has housed, over the years, a hefty sampling of Oregon’s avian diversity: red-tailed hawks, a blue heron and bald eagle, cranes, great horned owls, and falcons, to name a few species. Each bird is tagged and held as evidence until, every few months, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes to claim the preserved carcasses.

Although it was par for the course, the Audubon Care Center volunteers who responded to a call this past Memorial Day were still shocked to discover an adult female osprey on the ground near her nest, a bloody bullet wound in her twisted right wing. Though the nest was lodged too high on a utility pole to tell whether there were chicks inside, the odds are that by that late spring date, there likely were. And they’re now motherless: with the female’s wing bone shattered irreparably, the staff veterinarian euthanized her the same day.

The unfortunate victim joined two other ospreys that had been shot that month. “There’s a steady stream of birds of prey coming through our door with metal in them,” says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Portland chapter, which has offered a $1,500 reward for information leading to an arrest in the most recent osprey death—to no avail so far. In this particular case, nearby property owner happened to notice and report the injured bird while it was alive. More often than not, though, these incidents go unnoticed or people don’t bother reporting the birds they find already dead. “The fact that we see this as often as we do means there are a lot more cases happening,” says Sallinger.

Harming ospreys, whose population has rebounded since the end of the DDT era, is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This is the same law that helped convict five Oregon roller pigeon club members for killing hawks and other raptors that they believe threaten their racing pigeons (see “Fowl Play,” Incite, Audubon, May-June). Because ospreys eat fish almost exclusively, they are less likely to be targeted by roller pigeon enthusiasts, but the birds’ meal choice does make them vulnerable to pond owners who object to their stock being stolen, says special agent Jim Steinbaugh, an investigator with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s enforcement division in Oregon.

That’s what Steinbaugh suspects happened to at least one of the three ospreys recently killed in Oregon, ever since he learned about a stocked fish pond near where the osprey was found. Lacking a witness or a confession, however, he has no evidence to support his theory. “That’s why these cases are so hard to make,” he says. “Most people are smart enough to keep their mouths shut when the police come knocking.” 

The fact is that regardless of the cause, the deaths of the vast majority of these birds—those that make it to the freezer and those that don’t—will remain a mystery. It doesn’t help that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s enforcement wing, according to Steinbaugh, has the manpower to investigate only a select few of the cases they even hear about. 

What’s more, even when someone is caught and convicted, the consequences don’t often offer much to deter similar crimes. “The law doesn’t take this seriously,” says Sallinger. As with the roller pigeon cases, the penalty is a Class B misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $15,000. In many instances, though, it’s the minimum $750 fine that gets levied. Legislation proposed by U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) that would increase the maximum penalty for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to a felony is now before the House Natural Resources Committee and currently has 14 cosponsors, according to GovTrack.us. DeFazio plans to continue his push to attract vital cosponsors, says Sallinger.

The proposed legislation, inspired by the roller pigeon investigations, would give prosecutors the discretion to seek a stronger statement in cases where the law is egregiously violated. The “sadistic and pathetic” Memorial Day episode, as Sallinger calls it, illustrates the need for stiffer penalties. “It’s one thing to basically pay a parking ticket, and then it’s over,” he says. “It’s another to send someone to jail for killing a protected species.”

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