America: Save a Bald Eagle but face Jail time for doing so!

An Illinois wildlife photographer is on trial for rescuing injured birds in a case that will decide just how far citizens can go to help protected wildlife.

This male eagle was released back into the Illinois wild on Jan. 1 after 18 months of care at Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation. (Photo: Sue Wren)

Illinois prosecutors next month will take wildlife photographer Steve Patterson to trial. His crime? Removing baby bald eagles from the wild. His punishment could be up to a year in prison and $10,000 in fines if convicted of violating state laws that protect wildlife.

The question for the jury—did Patterson save two eaglets that had fallen from a tree from certain death, or did he criminally harass a protected species—will reverberate far beyond La Salle County, Illinois, and could influence the public’s willingness to help injured wildlife.

In late May 2013, a major windstorm knocked a bald eagle nest to the ground and with it, two eaglets on privately owned wooded land near a state highway in LaSalle County. On June 1, 2013, Steve Patterson went onto the property with the owner’s permission, retrieved the eaglets, and took them to his garage.

Patterson, who thought one of the birds appeared to be injured, then made a number of phone calls to find help for the eaglets, a male and a female. He called local and state police as well as Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, which came and picked up the birds.

(Photo: Phil Hampel)

Peter Sakas, a veterinary orthopedic surgeon, examined both birds soon after and found that the male had a single wing fracture and the female, multiple wing fractures.

Eighteen months later, on Jan. 1, 2015, the male eagle was returned to the wild. His nest mate’s fate is uncertain. Her injuries, while healed, have impaired her flying abilities, which may mean that she spends her life in captivity as an ambassador for her species.

“We treat about 3,400 injured wildlife a year, including 2,800 birds,” said Dawn Keller, the director of Flint Creek Wildlife. “The chance of these birds surviving on the ground was slim to none. In our opinion, his actions did save their lives.”

The county’s aggressive prosecution of Patterson—a first trial in 2014 ended in a hung jury—could make people think twice about rescuing wildlife, said Keller.

She believes that Illinois needs to pass a bill, currently before the state legislature, to strengthen Good Samaritan protections for citizens who transport injured protected wildlife to save them.

On a Facebook page as well as in a petition, Patterson’s supporters call him a hero who is being made an example of by an overzealous county prosecutor.

But Brian Towne, the LaSalle County state’s attorney, has portrayed Patterson as a raptor fanatic who has run afoul of law enforcement multiple times for harassing protected species.

Towne described three incidents in 2014 in which Wisconsin conservation police caught Patterson “baiting” a great gray owl with a mouse on a string. After the third time, the police arrested him and charged him with a conservation law violation. Patterson pleaded guilty and paid a fine. “I think he was just having fun, to be blunt,” said Towne.

“Steve is a wildlife photographer,” countered Tom McClintock, Patterson’s attorney. “He raises mice. He took some of them to Wisconsin and tied one to a peg on the ground so that it would attract an owl.”

Once arrested and charged with a crime far from home, McClintock said, Patterson made what seemed to be the best choice at the time to regain his freedom.

But he wasn’t baiting the owl, McClintock noted. “The definition of ‘baiting’ is when you put a salt block out, and a deer comes up, and you blast it with a rifle. He wasn’t hunting; he took a picture.”

Prosecutors also dispute the condition of the two eaglets at the time Patterson removed them from the woods.

Towne said the eaglets might have been doing fine until Patterson interfered, because it’s not unusual for eaglets to spend time on the ground when they are learning to fly, “protected by Mom and Dad.”

“What worries me the most about that is that Steve Patterson himself said that when he retrieved those eagles, one was injured and one was not,” Towne said, suggesting that Patterson’s handling of the birds hurt one or both.

“Despite what accidentally became a ‘good’ outcome” with the male eagle returning to the wild, Towne said, “the initially uninjured eaglet was in the custody of Flint Creek for 18 months, out of the area and away from its mom and dad. You still deprived him of learning from his parents how to hunt and fly and fish.”

According to McClintock, however, the veterinary orthopedist who examined the birds for Flint Creek Wildlife testified that the eaglets’ bones healed in a way more consistent with having been fractured when the birds hit the ground during the windstorm.

“Both had fractured wings, one more severely than the other,” which “motivated Steve Patterson to retrieve those eagles,” said McClintock, who claimed his client had been much more aware of the birds’ condition than any government wildlife official.

“He also knew the date that they were born, the date that they were going to be old enough to fly, and that they had to be removed from that area to avoid predation,” added McClintock.

“If they’re baby birds, fuzzy and not harmful, in danger, and far away from where I am, if it’s not a danger to the person calling me, I’d say put it in a box and bring it to me,” she said.

“Sometimes the problem is caused by people or the environment we’ve created, and you can’t let nature take its course,” Horvath added. “They can’t keep it, take pictures of it, invite their friends over. They have to immediately turn it over to a licensed rehabilitator.

This article was first published in TakePart’s on January 14, 2015  and written by Emily Gertz

Emily Gertz is TakePart’s associate editor for environment and wildlife.

Comments are closed.