Dad, Can I Kill a Bald Eagle in Self-Defense?

Logo for Legal Crap My Kids Ask MeMax and I returned recently from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northern Minnesota, where there is a lot of wildlife to see, particularly bald eagles. As we were canoeing one afternoon on a lake with three bald eagles flying around and chirping at each other, he asked what would happen if an eagle attacked us. He knew enough already that it was a felony to kill a bald eagle (at least on purpose), but what if you killed one in self defense? Would that be illegal? What about killing one in a “stand your ground” state?

As a lawyer, I felt obliged to answer like a lawyer: it depends. Actually, like I typically do, I said I wasn’t sure.

While the US government removed the bald eagle from the endangered species list in 2007, it is still protected by two federal laws: the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Essentially, federal law prohibits anyone without a proper federal permit from:

knowingly, or with wanton disregard for the consequences of his act take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, at any time or in any manner any bald eagle commonly known as the American eagle or any golden eagle, alive or dead, or any part, nest, or egg thereof

Among other things, you cannot “take” (i.e., kill) a bald eagle without serious consequences. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helps to enforce the law and manages permits “to take, possess, and transport bald and golden eagles for scientific, educational, and Indian religious purposes, depredation, and falconry (golden eagles).”

The key word here is depredation, known less legally as “plundering.” That is, if a bald eagle is plundering you or your children or your home or your poodle, you might be able to obtain a federal eagle depredation permit to take care of that eagle. But it doesn’t mean you can go out with a gun and kill one, even if you think you are standing your ground in defense of yourself and your goats. Moreover, a federal eagle depredation permit would likely only result in temporarily relocating the offending eagle’s nest. Killing the bald eagle for its depredating ways? Highly doubtful.

If you killed a bald eagle without a permit, suffice it to say that federal authorities would be out to investigate to determine one thing: what the hell were you doing? If you claim self defense, then good luck.

While there are apparently unverified historical legends of bald eagles carrying off toddlers in the late 19th and early 20th century, the likelihood of that ever happening today is rare, if nonexistent (unless you fake it, like these enterprising computer animation students).

Ultimately, as one fish and wildlife representative said to me in an email (yes, I actually emailed the fish and wildlife service to ask):

I do not have any stories of citizens having close brushes with eagles that have escalated to a life or death situation for the bird. I have spoken with someone who claimed that an eagle was interested in consuming his child; but that is highly unlikely and was obviously unconfirmed.

Given the rarity of an unprovoked bald eagle attack, the facts likely won’t line up in your favor. And that’s the bottom line: can you establish the general legal requirements for using deadly force in defense of yourself? Those include:

(1) the absence of aggression or provocation on your part; (2) an actual and honest belief that you were in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm; (3) the existence of reasonable grounds for your belief; and (4) the absence of a reasonable possibility of retreat to avoid the danger.

This is the standard under Minnesota law. So-called “stand your ground” or “shoot first” states—like our neighbors in South Dakota and the fine folks in Florida—omit the fourth element, that of retreat. The fourth element also would not apply in most states if the bald eagle had unlawfully entered your home and attacked you in your kitchen (otherwise known as “the bald eagle in your castle doctrine” of self-defense).

Again, assuming you can meet the legal standard—which seems highly unlikely given the rarity of unprovoked bald eagle attacks—you may be able to make a case for killing a bald eagle in self-defense. But I have serious doubts that you could successfully establish the first element, that of an unprovoked attack, or that you could successfully demonstrate on objectively reasonable grounds that you were in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm from a bald eagle. For that, you’d probably be answering plenty of initial inquiries from federal officials about what provoked the bald eagle to attack you and how you happened to kill it. Ultimately, you’d probably end up in a plea deal and paying a fine, doing time, or negotiating something in between.

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