A maimed golden eagle highlights what could be a growing problem with improperly placed animal traps.

On Saturday, members of the Raptor View Research Institute captured an adult golden eagle in the Bitterroot Valley whose left leg was so badly mutilated it will probably need amputation, if the bird survives.

“Clearly its leg had been caught in a leg-hold trap and then it was released by the trapper,” said Raptor View director Rob Domenech. “This isn’t the first time. We captured one last year that had three of its four toes sheared off. And two of our birds with satellite transmitters were trapped – one in Ringling and one in British Columbia.”

The eagle was caught as part of a research project placing satellite tracking devices on migratory birds of prey. The Missoula-based institute has placed 38 such transmitters, and tracked Montana eagles migrating as far as the Brooks Range in Alaska.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson said trappers are required to set traps at least 30 feet away from exposed bait. They may place their sets closer to bait that’s covered from birds’ view by branches or a cubby hole.

“The idea is you’re trying to keep raptors from landing on a dead animal, scavenge it and get caught in a trap,” Thompson said.

Trappers using wolf-sized traps are also required to inspect their sets every 48 hours to check for non-target wildlife. Smaller furbearer traps don’t have that requirement, although Thompson said it was good practice to keep the same schedule.

By law, no one but a licensed raptor handler can touch an eagle or other bird of prey. Anyone finding a trapped or injured eagle should call the closest FWP office and arrange for a qualified person to assist the bird.

“We need for trappers to really be aware that these birds are going to come in on these traps,” Domenech said. “If there’s an exposed bait, eagles will find it. And these birds don’t have well-developed olfactory senses – they’re not smelling these baits out. They’re seeing them.”

While golden and bald eagles are no longer on the federal Endangered Species List, both raptors are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Montanans listed hunting and fishing as a protected right in the state Constitution in 2004. The Legislature is currently debating House Bill 212, which would add the word “harvest” to its hunting and fishing statute, to clarify that trapping is equal to hunting and fishing. Critics of the move say it equates the commercial aspects of fur trapping to the personal, private use of big game and fish by fair-chase methods.

Domenech said he wasn’t taking a position on the bill, but he was concerned about how closely trappers follow existing regulations.

“We just need people to be careful,” Domenech said. “We’re going to continue to see more trappers on the landscapes, as prices for pelts and furs are going up overseas.  That means more incentive for people to be out there with these traps.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.