In recent years, news reports have covered the “unusually high” number of bald eagles dying from gunshot wounds. Thankfully there are strict measures to curb this issue, as you’ll see later as I talk about how killing a bald eagle a federal offense.
But what happens if you shoot a bald eagle, or even kill one accidentally? Well, I’ve investigated the laws around it, including what to do when you find a dead bald eagle through no fault of your own.
What happens if you kill a bald eagle ? If you shoot and kill a bald eagle without a permit you will face severe legal consequences. This can include heavy fines and possibly federal imprisonment with jail time.
These penalties are nowhere close to lenient. It’s an offense you’d rather not commit because the law won’t be in your favor.
Below I will break down for you the specific federal laws that punish the unlawful shooting of bald eagles including what exceptions there might be to bald eagle shooting?
What happens if you shoot a bald eagle?
In early April this year, a story emerged from Mississippi. It involved a 69-year-old man facing federal charges for shooting a mature bald eagle.
Officials attached to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service insist that this shooting was not accidental, as the man, identified as Timothy Lee Childers, deliberately took down the bald eagle flying near his residence.
In this case, the man was given the following punishment for shooting the bald eagle near his home:
U.S. Magistrate Judge David A. Sanders put Childers on probation for one year and ordered him to pay $3,500 in restitution to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a fine of $3,500.
The story had many people talking because it brought to light something that most people assume is just a myth…
Is killing a bald eagle really a federal offense?
It’s not a myth. Killing a bald eagle is classed as a federal offense and a federal court will charge you for intentionally shooting and killing a bald eagle.
But wait, there’s more. You’ll still attract federal charges even if the bald eagle you’ve shot doesn’t die. Meaning, if you shoot to kill or shoot to injure a bald eagle, the charges still stand.
Can you go to jail for killing a bald eagle?
Yes, you can go to jail for killing a bald eagle. It‘s illegal to kill a bald eagle on purpose. As explained further down, the period you’ll spend in prison will depend on the federal act you’ve violated.
The federal laws on killing bald eagles
To show its commitment to protecting bald eagles, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service even rewards whistleblowers who report persons involved in the shooting of bald eagles.
Good news for bald eagle lovers, right? Whistleblowers give useful information that authorities can use to persecute the perpetrators.
Here’s something we can agree on. The bald eagle embodies values we treasure as a nation. Despite its prominent status, not all members of the public accord the bald eagle the honor it deserves.
For this reason, the bald eagle is under federal protection. The government is keen on preserving the bald eagle population that currently stands at 316,700.
As per federal law, shooting a bald eagle for the first time is a misdemeanor punishable by a heavy fine or shorter prison time. The law treats a repeat offense as a felony.
What this means is, if found guilty of a second bald eagle shooting offense, you’ll pay an even greater fine or serve longer prison time.
These three federal wildlife statutes protect bald eagles from unlawful shooting by individuals and organizations:
- The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act
- The Migratory Bird Treaty Act
- The Lacey Act
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act
This act considers the intentional shooting of bald eagles a violation of federal law. As shown in the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Website, you’re punished as follows if found guilty of shooting a bald eagle under this act:
- If the offense is a misdemeanor, you’ll pay a fine amounting to $100,000 or serve one year in jail. For an organization found guilty, it’ll part with a higher fine, $200,000.
- If this act convicts you for the second time, you’re slapped with a fine amounting to $250,000 or a maximum of two years’ prison time. For an organization involved in a repeat offense, the fine goes up to $500,000.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Ever since its enactment in 1918, this act has saved thousands, if not millions, of bald eagles from unlawful shooting.
This act views bald eagles as federally protected migratory birds. Shooting bald eagles will land you on the wrong side of this law.
Under this act, you’ll attract the following penalties if found guilty of shooting a bald eagle:
- If it’s a misdemeanor conviction, you’ll pay a fine of $5,000 or serve six months of jail time.
- If it’s a felony conviction, you’ll pay up to $250,000 in fines or serve a maximum of two years in prison.
- If the violator of the shooting offense is an organization, the fine is twice the amount for each conviction. That is, $10,000 for a misdemeanor conviction of bald eagle shooting and $500,000 for a felony conviction of bald eagle shooting.
The Lacey Act
This act criminalizes the shooting of protected species like the bald eagle. It’s the nation’s oldest wildlife protection statute. Federal prosecutors widely use this act against those found guilty of shooting bald eagles without a permit.
As per this act, you’ll face the following penalties for shooting a bald eagle:
- For individuals, the fine amounts to $250,000 for a felonious bald eagle shooting offense. A federal court may also imprison you for up to five years, even after paying the fine. For an organization convicted of a repeat shooting offense, the fine stands at $500, 000.
- For individuals, the fine amounts to $100,000 for bald eagle shooting offenses that are misdemeanors. A federal court may also sentence you to one year in jail even after you pay the fine. The fine stands at $200,000 for an organization that commits a misdemeanor.
Also note, you’ll surrender your firearm to the authorities if found guilty of the shooting offense, be it a misdemeanor or a felony.
Handy Hint: If you are ever offered a bald eagle for sale, immediately report it to the police. There’s a black market in birds of prey, and bald eagles cost a lot, dead or alive.
When can you shoot and kill a bald eagle?
You’re only allowed to shoot and kill a bald eagle if you have a federal permit to do so.
The permit is strictly for shooting motives that aim to fulfill a lawful activity. For example: shooting to use the bald eagle for scientific research or shooting a bald eagle to prevent a public health and safety emergency.
Any other unlawful reasons for shooting a bald eagle are unacceptable. Seeing how harsh the penalties are, shooting a bald eagle is certainly not worth the risk.
What happens if you accidentally kill a bald eagle?
Here’s your sigh of relief. The law doesn’t persecute individuals who’ve unintentionally and accidentally killed a bald eagle. If you kill the bald eagle by accident, it’s your responsibility to inform Fish and Wildlife Service authorities immediately. They’ll handle your situation the best way possible.
What should you do if you find a dead bald eagle?
If you find or see a dead bald eagle you should report it to the Fish and Wildlife Service authorities immediately.
You can find the state offices and their respective phone numbers here. You can also dial 911 to get instructions on how to handle the situation. Be prepared to provide all details surrounding the death of the bald eagle.
Also, don’t move the eagle’s dead body home from its location. You should wait for the authorities to provide the way forward.
What happens when a bald eagle builds a nest on your property?
For up to date legislation and law on what to do when a bald eagle builds a nest on your land, click here.
What happens if you run over a bald eagle?
The act of running over a bald eagle would be accidental, so in case like this you will not be prosecuted or fined. However, you should still report the death of the bald eagle as described above
A bald eagle is a national treasure. Federal laws are in place to guard the welfare of bald eagles. If you kill this bird, you’ve committed a federal crime.
You might get a large fine, and in some cases, if you shoot and kill a bald eagle, you might end up having to go to prison.
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Image in header via https://unsplash.com/photos/bgJiSoC7kMM