Rescued eagle returned to the wild; rescuer faces retrial
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An 18-month-old bald eagle was released into the wild near Rock Island on New Year’s Day while the man credited with rescuing it waits for a new trial on charges of tampering with wildlife.
Wildlife photographer Steve Patterson will be retried Feb. 23 in La Salle County. He was charged with bringing two baby bald eagles into his Oglesby home, a violation of the Illinois Wildlife Code. Patterson faces up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine for each of the four misdemeanor charges.
Patterson, whose first trial last year ended with a hung jury, is the poster child for a movement to pass wildlife good Samaritan legislation in Illinois. State Rep. Bob Pritchard, R-Hinckley, has filed a bill for the legislative session that begins Jan. 14, asking that the code be amended to protect people like Patterson.
Both federal and state laws prevent people from touching or otherwise interfering with animals in the wild, but there is a federal wildlife good Samaritan law.
House Bill 109 would allow anyone who finds an injured, sick or crippled wild animal to take possession of it and immediately take it to a qualified rehab facility, according to Pritchard.
“It’s no different than a domesticated animal or even a human; if you have an injury and you can treat and rehabilitate, we ought to try and do that,” Pritchard said.
Pritchard said it is “unnecessary and a waste” of state tax dollars to prosecute wildlife tampering when the intent was to help.
Patterson found the nest of a pair of eagles he had monitored for years had blown out of its tree in June 2013. Two young eagles were on the ground, and one appeared to be severely injured, Patterson said.
Patterson said he knew they couldn’t fly.
“I could either get them and save them, or leave them and they could die,” he said.
He called the Department of Natural Resources, which eventually called him back and said to leave the birds alone. He didn’t let them know he had the eaglets already, perched on sawhorses in his garage.
In the meantime, Patterson had called Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, which came to get the eaglets.
Flint Creek director Dawn Keller took the thin and dehydrated eagles to her facility. They were a male and a female. Both had wing fractures; the male had a less serious wing injury. They were raised by an injured adult eagle, Keller said, and when the male eagle began flying confidently, Keller waited for adult eagles to return to Illinois so he could join them.
On Jan. 1, Keller released him along the Mississippi River near Rock Island. He flew a long way before he began to make his way back toward a large group of eagles, she said.
“He was so ready to go,” she said.
Because there are no licensed eagle banders in Illinois, Keller was not able to tag the bird — so she may never know if he lives to adulthood.
The eagle freed last week was named Sam, “in honor of the good Samaritan law that he helped show us there was a dramatic need for,” Keller said.
The female eagle, named Patty after Patterson, is receiving physical therapy, and Keller expects it to be released later.
Regardless of the eagles’ outcome, La Salle County State’s Attorney Brian Towne said he will continue to pursue the case. Towne said Patterson has a conviction for wildlife tampering in Wisconsin and has had run-ins with conservation police in the past.
“He thumbs his nose at nature and the law. All under the guise of being a hero,” Towne said.
“He did more harm to that eaglet than he did good. Had Patterson not intervened with the experts dealing with the situation, that eaglet would not have had to be released after 18 months of incarceration,” Towne said.
Patterson, who was present at the young eagle’s release, has spent $20,000 defending himself against the county’s case, but he isn’t interested in stopping.
“This ordeal has nothing to do with my actions,” Patterson said. “I just didn’t want to see these two birds die on the ground.”