Tour operator says he'll stop baiting eagles for photo ops

Posted: Monday, October 02, 2000

HAINES (AP) -- A jet boat tour operator who baited eagles for two years in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near here said he would stop the practice after an hour of mostly critical testimony before the preserve's advisory council late last month.

River Adventures owner Duck Hess was unapologetic about throwing bait herring to eagles from boats on his tours.

The practice is legal, and Hess said it allowed his clients to get remarkably close photos of diving eagles.

''If you could hear people 'ooh' and 'aah' to see an eagle take a fish from the river, to me it's awe-inspiring,'' Hess said.

But other area guide companies testified against the baiting technique.

''To reduce our nation's symbol to a circus act leaping for a herring is deplorable,'' said Alaska Nature Tours owner Dan Egolf.

Hess said he learned the baiting trick from a Juneau physician who showed him how to fill a fish with air using a hypodermic needle. The fish float on the water, enabling eagles to easily swoop down and snare them in their talons. That provides the perfect photo opportunity.

Federal wildlife officials don't like the practice, saying it could habituate the birds to artificial feeding.

But Hess was not breaking any laws, said Karen Boylan, assistant regional director for external affairs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.

Neither the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald Eagle Protection Act nor state law addresses baiting for tourism purposes. Only baiting for hunting is prohibited.

Officials would have to show that the practice resulted in the death, injury or harassment of an eagle to accuse anyone of violating the law.

The only law that came close was a state statute against baiting to change an animal's behavior to prevent viewing or hunting by someone else.

''That doesn't mean we think (baiting) is OK,'' Boylan told the Chilkat Valley News. ''We strongly would discourage anyone from doing anything like this.''

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