WILMINGTON - A bald eagle recently injured by a leghold trap is one reason trappers may have to adhere to new regulations regarding the use of bait when their season rolls around next fall.
Gordon Batcheller, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the potential changes are in response to incidents in which birds of prey were caught in traps, including a bald eagle that was recently found near Sacandaga Lake in Hamilton County on Dec. 6. He said the DEC had been working on the regulations prior to the bald eagle incident.
A trapper found the bald eagle dangling upside down in a hemlock tree about 15 to 20 feet in the air and about 100 yards from where the trap was originally set. The bird had a trap attached to its rear talon and was unable to escape on its own after getting tangled in the tree. The bald eagle had apparently been drawn to the area of the trap by a dead beaver carcass used to bait coyotes, said Forest Ranger Tom Eakin, who helped rescue the bird.
A bald eagle hangs upside down from a tree on Dec. 6 near Sacandaga Lake in Hamilton County. The eagle, which was rescued, became tangled after trying to fly with a leghold trap attached to its rear talon.
(Photo — Tom Eakin, DEC forest ranger)
"That and other cases in the past that we've been aware of just suggest to us that we need to take further action," Batcheller told the Enterprise. "In the past we've sent out information to trappers, educating them about this risk and the need to deal with it and take actions to preclude birds of prey from being caught, but it wasn't enough. Now we need to take another step and put a regulation in place."
Batcheller said the draft regulations will be written this winter and could be open for public comment in the spring. The regulations may require trappers to cover their bait, but the logistics still have to be worked out. Batcheller said the DEC will work closely with the New York State Trappers Association when drafting the regulations. The goal is to have them ready for the opening of the trapping season in the fall, he said.
The case of the bald eagle drew the attention of the public and media after wildlife educator Steve Hall wrote an essay and posted graphic photos of animals caught in leghold traps on the Web site, adirondackwildlife.org. Hall is married to wildlife rehabilitator Wendy Hall, who helped the DEC rescue the bird, and the couple runs the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center in Wilmington.
Steve Hall criticized leghold traps for causing wildlife "unimaginable agony," in part because animals can be left in the trap for up to 24 hours in many parts of New York and 48 hours in parts of the Adirondacks. He says in some cases, "The animal will chew off its own leg to effect its escape." Hall also said that trapped animals at risk of being prey to other species and "untargeted animals" can be caught in traps.
"Sometimes the victims are pet dogs and cats," Hall wrote in his essay. "Twice already this fall, we have picked up birds-of-prey who have been caught in these traps. ... The first was a large female red-tailed hawk, who lost one of her legs in a trap up near Brushton, and the second was the bald eagle."
In some cases, animals caught in these traps have to be euthanized. The lucky ones are released back into the wild. The bald eagle is recovering and could be let go within a couple of months, according to Cara Huffman, a volunteer with Lake George-based North Country Wild Care, the organization now taking care of the bird.
When asked if laws regarding the use of leghold traps themselves would be changed, Batcheller said there is no plan for that and any change would have to be made by state legislators. Several states and many European countries ban leghold traps. But Batcheller noted that trappers help keep animal populations such as beavers in check and that many modern leghold traps are designed to cause little or no injuries to animals, and the DEC is actively promoting those devices.
"They're actually used in research," Batcheller said. "We're doing a lot of coyote research here in New York right now, and to capture coyotes alive, leghold traps are used, and they work because they usually cause little or no injury in coyotes or foxes."
He said a proposed rule change on baiting would be focused on helping birds of prey in New York, including the bald eagle that was caught in a trap near Sacandaga Lake.
"The bald eagle has made a spectacular recovery, and we have eagles in the state, and we have to make sure they aren't caught in traps," Batcheller said. "That's the bottom line."