Legal Eagles?

by John M. Simpson

Recent news reports have detailed an experience related by Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York in which an unspecified member of his family reportedly retrieved a bald eagle feather during a canoe trip on Lake Saranac.  The reports have generated discussion as to the legal issues surrounding the possession of a bald eagle feather. 

The American bald eagle (as well as the golden eagle) is protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, a measure passed by Congress in 1940.  16 U.S.C. §§ 668 & 668a-668d.  Among other things, the law prohibits any person, not otherwise authorized by permit or regulation, from knowingly “taking” or possessing any bald or golden eagle or “any part, nest, or egg thereof of the foregoing eagles.”  16 U.S.C. § 668(a); 50 C.F.R. § 22.  “Take,” in turn, is defined to include capture or collect.  16 U.S.C. § 668c; 50 C.F.R. § 22.3.  The law prescribes civil penalties for violations of the Act, to a maximum of $5,000 or one year imprisonment with $10,000 or not more than two years imprisonment for a second conviction.  Felony convictions result in a maximum fine of $250,000 or two years imprisonment.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) provides rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of violators of the Act.

The bald eagle has also been the beneficiary of other federal legal protections.  From 1967 through 1995, the bald eagle was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 43 of the 48 lower U.S. states.  From 1995 through 2007, the bald eagle was listed as threatened under the ESA in all 48 contiguous U.S. states.  Due to significant recovery, the bald eagle was delisted under the ESA in 2007, but is still subject to the prohibitions of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

According to published sources, bald eagle nesting pairs numbered fewer than 500 in 1963, but by 2014 nesting pairs were estimated to be between 14,000 and 15,000.