Have you ever wondered what happens if you kill a bald eagle? Is there any legal protection in place to help discourage such killings? What if you mistakenly or unintentionally kill the eagle–what are the legal repercussions you can expect to face? In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions and more.
What You'll Learn Today
What Happens if You Accidentally Kill a Bald Eagle?
The bald eagle is the United States’ national bird, and as such, most Americans would not deliberately kill it. But what if you mistake the majestic bird for something else, or you shoot it accidentally in some way?
The laws regarding bald eagles are pretty harsh even for those who kill one unintentionally, and the laws do not necessarily make allowances for those who are unaware of them.
If you kill a bald eagle, whether intentionally or not, you could be subject to a number of convictions and fines. Jail time is also possible.
Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, it is a crime to disturb both bald and golden eagles as well as their nests, eggs, and any part of them. Trapping, transporting, killing, or otherwise molesting bald and golden eagles is going to get you in trouble unless you have a prior permit.
The maximum civil penalties for a first offense are $5,000 or a year in prison. A second offense has a maximum $10,000 civil penalty or up to two years in prison.
Criminal fines are much steeper, as follows:
- Up to $100,000 first offense, individual
- Up to $200,000 first offense, organization
- Up to $250,000 second offense, individual
- Up to $500,000 second offense, organization
These criminal fines may also include up to a year of jail time for first offenders and up to two years for second offenders.
In addition to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, other federal laws such as the Eagle Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act also prohibit tampering with eagles. Many states and local authorities have also issued laws to protect bald eagles.
Why is it Illegal to Kill a Bald Eagle?
Aside from the bald eagle being the national bird, you may be wondering, why are all the protections in place? Why are the punishments so steep?
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the Bald Eagle Protection Act came into effect in 1940, and in 1962, it was amended to include golden eagles as well. At that time, the primary purpose was to protect both eagle species from extinction.
Eagles were once hunted to endangerment, much like any other predatory species. Some were used for taxidermy and other display purposes, some were shot for encroaching on populated areas and disturbing local livestock, while many others were unintentionally killed due to pesticide poisoning.
Since the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was put in place, both bald and golden eagles have made an impressive comeback. Though both species are no longer considered endangered, the Act has been left in place, and as such, it is still illegal to kill them.
Check out this video to learn more about the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and why it came into being.
Do You Go to Jail if You Kill a Bald Eagle?
As you noticed above, jail time is a possible penalty of killing a bald eagle or otherwise breaching the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. But whether or not you will end up serving time after killing a bald eagle is not so cut and dried.
Each bald eagle killing is reviewed on an individual basis in court. An accidental killing that can be proven as such may lead to heavy fines without jail time, while a more suspicious case may lead to both heavy fines and time behind bars.
Your ability to pay the fines may also determine whether you end up in jail and for how long.
Again, it all depends on the individual case and what is determined in court.
Can I Keep an Eagle Feather I Found?
No. Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, it is illegal to take or disturb any eagle or eagle parts. Strange as it may seem, this includes eagle feathers that you find laying on the ground.
The exception is any recognized member of a Native American tribe covered under the Tribal Member Use of Feathers or Other Parts of Federally Protected Birds Policy. These tribal members will not be prosecuted for collecting lost or molted feathers they may find in the wild.
For anyone not covered by this policy, it’s okay to take pictures of eagle feathers or to simply enjoy looking at them while out in nature, as long as you leave the feather where you found it. If you want to be able to keep the feather, you will have to obtain a federal permit.
Killing a bald eagle is a serious offense in the United States. Even an accidental killing may lead to time spent behind bars or having to pay a steep fine.