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Mitch Lane was expecting a dead bald eagle when he responded to a report from a waterfowl hunter. His first glance at the raptor from across the river seemed to confirm the report.
But once the conservation officer with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) reached the eagle he found the bird was alive. How long it remains alive is another matter.
Lane picked up the live bald eagle Saturday in an area along the Weber River in West Weber, close to where another eagle was collected on Dec. 1. The eagle retrieved earlier and at least three others from wide-ranging locations eventually died from a yet unknown cause.
"There were a lot of eagles in the area this time of year. This one was on the ground and had his wings spread out; he looked dead from a distance," Lane said. "When I got closer it was obvious it was still alive."
The eagle could stretch out its wings but couldn't fly, and Lane recognized that it did not have full use of its legs or talons.
Those are symptoms the four bald eagles displayed before dying at either the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden or the Great Basin Wildlife Rescue in Mapleton. The other eagles were found in Corinne, Grantsville and Lehi.
"This one is stable and in fair condition," DaLyn Erickson of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center said Monday. "He is in better condition than the other eagles we received."
The latest eagle is showing signs of the head tremors the others displayed, but it is "very slight," Erickson said.
The eagle has leg paralysis and difficulty processing food, symptoms the other birds showed. The eagle is being fed a nutrient-rich liquid diet.
Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease specialist with the DWR, said discovering another eagle is a concern, but no new clues have emerged in the mystery.
"It is really hard to make any conclusions without the results of necropsies and without putting samples under the scope to see what is going on," she said. "Until we can get those results it really just remains speculation."
Possible culprits include West Nile virus or avian vacuolar myelinopathy, a neurological disease found in 1994 in the southern United States that impacts bald eagles and American coots.
The dead eagles are being sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., for testing. Results are likely at least two weeks away.
Wildlife officials ask people who spot distressed eagles or other wildlife to contact local DWR offices (Ogden, Vernal, Springville, Cedar City and Price) with the location of the animal. The Help Stop Poaching Hotline 1-800-662-3337 is another option on weekends and holidays and after hours.