Large raptors in search of prey in the skies and harbors of Petersburg have to be wary they don't become fast-food fare themselves when landing on Little Norway's power poles. Over a dozen eagles alone in the last two years have been electrocuted as they stopped to stretch a wing while perching atop one of PMP&L's bird-unfriendly Douglas firs.
"We're just getting ready to ship these off to the eagle repository where they make feathers available to Native Americans for ceremonial use," said Petersburg wildlife biologist Richard Lowell as he stood next to a line of deceased adult bald eagles that had been taken from the Fish and Game storage freezer. "These birds were electrocuted on various power poles around town ... and some of them are 'hot spots.' Some poles are repeat offenders with respect to zapping these birds. That whole stretch of poles going out the Ocean Beauty dock is affectionately known as 'death row.' "
Lowell also mentioned that a pole in front of the old Mitkof Cannery is trouble as well. Reading the tags on the deceased eagles talon is much like a morgue line up.
"These two here I couldn't determine the cause of death," said Lowell, studying a tag on two eagles set apart from the main tally. "This one was floating in the harbor but it does stand to reason that it got zapped by a pole and fell into the bay. When the police department or a member of the public bring one in I oftentimes can't trace it back to the pole. We've had others who have been zapped but it didn't kill them and they were sent to the Sitka Raptor Center for rehabilitation. These here are just the dead ones we had in the freezer and we need to make room so we're shipping them out."
The National Eagle Repository in Denver, Colo., was established in the early 1970s by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide Native Americans with the feathers of golden and bald eagles needed for religious and cultural purposes, including healing, marriage, and naming ceremonies.
Located at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, the repository assigns a database number to each bird for pertinent information and then contacts the next person on the eagle waiting list (within three to five days). Applicants desiring an eagle carcass can expect to wait up to two years; there are over 4,000 people waiting for one of the 900 eagles the repository receives each year. Due to habitat loss, chemical exposure and poaching, eagle populations have been greatly reduced.
The Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940 and an amendment to it in 1962 makes any collection of an eagle part illegal without a permit. Objects made from feathers or eagle parts cannot be sold. They can be handed down from generation to generation, but Native Americans cannot give eagle feathers or parts to non-Natives as a gift.
On average six to 10 eagles a year fall prey to power pole hazards in Petersburg. Many drop injured and go unreported. Ravens, great blue herons, crows and gulls also fall prey but the eagles' six-foot wing span makes them especially susceptible due to the larger number of contact points they touch while perching.
According to Lowell, in some areas power poles and transformer lines are being retrofitted to make them safer.