Rocky Matthews, 57, owner of the Hidden Hollow sheep farm in Murtaugh, Idaho, finally solved the mystery that had been plaguing him for weeks.
After peacefully living on his land for the last 20 years, for the first time American Bald Eagles decided to attack the local livestock.
From April to May, this quiet farm about 150 miles southeast of Boisie had been suffering from a series of attacks that killed 54 lambs. In the beginning, Matthews found some of his lambs dead with puncture wounds.
He initially thought that someone shot the sheep with a pellet gun, or that the corpse might have been pecked by another animal.
The attacks and the mystery of the lambs’ death continued.
One day, while tending to his flock of sheep, Matthews finally discovered the culprit after seeing the predator in action.
He recalled, “And then all of a sudden, he [the bald eagle] swoops down and basically lands on top of one and then just takes off. I go over there and here’s the puncture wounds.” The eagle just attacked and left, without carrying off the lamb.
Believing that the animal was behind the deaths of his lambs, Matthews reported the American Bald Eagle attack to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, who sent an officer to visit the farm.
Since the nest of the American Bald Eagle is on his property and the bird poses a threat to his livestock, Matthews is well within his rights to obtain a hazing permit. This would allow him to make noise to scare off the eagles.
A permit is necessary since the majestic American Bald Eagle, as the national emblem of the U.S., is protected by the country’s Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Taking an American Bald Eagle or disturbing its nest is a criminal violation that could result in two years of jail time and a fine of $250,000.
Despite the attacks on his livelihood, however, Matthews decided not to disturb the American Bald Eagle after seeing that the female had laid eggs.
He said, “The eggs wouldn’t have hatched. And then you’d be affecting the next crop of bald eagles.” Disturbing the nest, which is now home to two adults and at least two babies, could possibly starve the eaglets.
Instead, Matthews decided to move his livestock away from the nest. Another consideration is to build a structure to shelter and protect the lambs from further eagle attacks.
The farmer surmised that the eagles might be attacking the lambs after being deprived of their usual food supply. Matthews said that the American Bald Eagles usually eat carp found at the nearby Murtaugh Lake.
Unfortunately, a brutally cold spring led to a huge drop of temperature in the lake, which may have shortened the supply of carp. With less carp available as part of their normal diet, the eagles may have been forced to search for other sources of food.
According to Lyn Snoddy, regional wildlife biologist of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, after striking from above, American Bald Eagles use their powerful talons to grab the animals.
This allows them to sever internal arteries and wait for the animal to bleed out. Eagles primarily eat fish, although they are also known to prey on smaller mammals.
Snoddy added that eagle-related livestock deaths are generally unusual and don’t occur often or in large enough numbers to cause alarm.
Since then, Matthews and his wife, Becca, have filled out the necessary paperwork that may pay them 75% of the market value of the lost livestock.
Compensation may be provided by the USDA Farm Service Agency Livestock Indemnity Program, which pays farmers for livestock deaths that are beyond the normal mortality range, and may be the result of adverse weather or attacks from animals reintroduced into the wild by the federal government.
Despite the tragedy and an estimated loss of $7,500 due to the deaths of the lambs, Matthews contends that he is not personally bothered by the attacks.
“When you live life on a farm, I hate to say that death is an everyday occurrence, but you’re always dealing with sickness, wounds, death. It doesn’t tear me up inside.”
Saying that the American Bald Eagle attacks were rare, he added, “I just think it was kind of the perfect storm of lamb versus eagle situation. I think it just came to be.”