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Shooting of one of the world's oldest bald eagles being probed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal and state wildlife law enforcement officers are seeking assistance from the public in investigating the shooting death of one of the world's oldest known wild bald eagles, a 22-year-old female found fatally wounded in a Hardy County hayfield last November.

The eagle died en route to the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia's rehabilitation facility in Morgantown, according to Capt. Roy Cool of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources regional office in Romney.

"She had a silver metal band with an identifying number on her right leg," Cool said. The number indicated that the eagle had been banded as a chick in a nest in Ontario, Canada, in 1990.

"She's supposed to be the eighth-oldest bald eagle on record," said DNR wildlife biologist Kieran O'Malley. "She was otherwise very healthy and could have lived even longer."

Cool said an X-ray exam and other forensic tests indicated that a bullet passed through the eagle, apparently as she was in flight, based on the location of the entry and exit wounds.

The eagle was found Nov. 18, the day before the start of the buck firearms season, in a field about two miles from the South Branch of the Potomac River near the community of Old Fields. A portion of the South Branch in Hardy County is a known nesting site for bald eagles, but O'Malley said it was unknown whether the 22-year-old eagle had nested there, was overwintering in the area, or was simply passing through.

While bald eagles have been known to live up to 47 years in captivity, the life expectancy of the species is significantly less in the wild.

A bald eagle that had been banded as a chick in Maine and was struck and killed by a car 33 years later in New Brunswick in 2010 is believed to hold the posthumous record for longevity in the wild.

A 25-year-old bald eagle that was electrocuted when it attempted to perch on a power pole crossbar on Alaska's Kodiak Island in 2011 was described as one of the 10 oldest wild bald eagles on record, and the second oldest in Alaska history, in news accounts of its death.

New Hampshire wildlife officials said a 19-year-old bald eagle also found dead in 2011 near Hancock, N.H., was the oldest-known member of its species ever found in that state.

"We're hopeful of getting some feedback from the public on anything they might have heard or seen" regarding the shooting of the eagle, Cool said.

A reward of up to $2,500 will be paid for information leading to an arrest and conviction, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While bald eagles are no longer protected under federal endangered species laws, they are covered by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which carries a penalty of up to $100,000 and one year in prison for first-time offenders.

West Virginia laws provide for fines of up to $5,000 and one year in jail, plus a $5,000 "replacement" fee for causing the injury or death of an eagle.

DNR law enforcement officials and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Bryce Findley are investigating the eagle's shooting death.

"It would have been nice to have been able to rehabilitate and release this eagle," said O'Malley. "She had to have contributed to the bald eagle population growth to some extent. Who knows how much longer she could have lived."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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