Hunters arrested after allegedly killing bald eagle in Itawamba County

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

A couple of Marietta hunters are being charged in connection with the killing of an American bald eagle in northern Itawamba County.

Benjamin T. Wallace, 24, and an unidentified minor, both of Marietta, were arrested on Dec. 2 under suspicion of shooting the federally-protected bird while duck hunting in the uppermost regions of the county.

The two suspects have been released from jail on bond, but are currently facing federal charges for the crime.

According to Jim Walker with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, at approximately 8:30 a.m. that morning, the suspects were allegedly spotted shooting the eagle by a fellow duck hunter, who called in the report. At the time, the tipster believed the suspects may have shot a buzzard, which would also constitute a crime — albeit a lesser one — because the bird isn’t a game animal.

When officers with the MDWFP responded to the call, the suspects had allegedly hidden the bird beneath a log. When pressed, Walker said, the suspects led officers to the location of the dead animal, which turned out to be the national bird. The suspects were transported to the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Department. The case has since been handed over to federal authorities.

Walker said shooting an American bald eagle is a serious offense, one in which violators face heavy fines, potential jail time and lifetime loss of hunting privileges.

“It shouldn’t happen at all. Period. There’s no excuse for shooting one,” Walker said. “They just weren’t thinking.”

Although no longer listed among endangered species, the American bald eagle is still a federally protected bird. This is, in part, due to relatively low population numbers, but also due to the bird’s symbolic status.

“That’s our national bird — a beautiful, majestic animal — and it’s against the law to shoot one,” Walker explained.

Thankfully, he added, it’s also a bit of a rarity for one to be shot, especially in Mississippi where their numbers aren’t especially high. Although the American bald eagle can be found throughout the lower 48 states, Mississippi’s bald eagle population is among the most shallow. According to information gathered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were a total of 31 breeding pairs of bald eagles in Mississippi as of 2006 — the last year the survey was conducted. That same year, Alabama had 71 mating pairs; Tennessee had 120.

“It’s very seldom you even see a bald eagle [in Mississippi],” Walker said, adding that he hopes if something good were to come out of the bird’s killing, it would be a greater awareness of the severity of the crime.

“These are not game animals,” he said. “We appreciate the public’s help in reporting this to the authorities.”

adam.armour@journalinc.com