Ospreys and herons like to eat fish. That can be a problem at a fish hatchery, where the pickings are easy. One Great Blue Heron might eat three or four foot-long trout in a single visit. Most hatchery owners use netting over tanks and raceways to prevent birds from preying on fish. They also use canons to scare the birds off. Michael Zak, owner of the Mohawk Trout Hatchery in Sunderland MA, and his son-in-law Timothy Lloyd, preferred a .204 caliber Ruger 77 high-powered rifle with a 6-24x50 Swaravski scope. Their victims included at least 279 Great Blue Herons, six Ospreys, one Red-tailed Hawk, and a juvenile Bald Eagle.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agents started an investigation at the hatchery in September 2005, after receiving a tip from the Massachusetts Environmental Police. During surveillance, the agents witnessed Zak shooting a Great Blue Heron. They also saw Lloyd kill an Osprey. On May 1st, they found the freshly-killed carcass of a juvenile Bald Eagle. It was lying face down at the base of a dead pine tree, with its wings shut and feet clenched. Zak later said he thought it was a “big brown hawk” when he shot it, even though it was about twice the size of any hawk found in western Massachusetts. Leg bands indicated the 2 ½ year old female eagle had been born in Connecticut. The total summer eagle population in CT is only about two dozen.
Zak claimed he shot the birds to “protect his livelihood.” Putting netting over raceways would have cost about $12,000-40,000, which he decided was too expensive. When the Fish & Wildlife agents asked him why he did not try to get depredation permits, he said it was because permits would have put a limit the number of birds he could kill.
A gun collector and avid hunter, Zak shot at birds with abandon - even Red-tailed Hawks that did not take his fish. Some of the birds were killed during nesting season, so their young may also have died of starvation. Many were shot while perching in the large dead pine tree where the eagle’s body was found. John Fulmore, a former employee, said they referred to it as the “Hanging Tree,” because sometimes birds that had been shot got tangled up in the tree and did not fall all the way to the ground. Fulmore claimed he quit his job at the hatchery after 11 months because he could no longer stomach the killing of so many wild birds.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was put in place to control hunting of game birds like ducks, and to prevent capturing or killing of non-game migratory birds without a permit. Only a few introduced invasive birds like House Sparrows and European Starlings are not protected under the Act. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was enacted to stop the useless destruction and possible extinction of eagles by people “seized with a determination to kill it for no other reason than it is an eagle and bird of large proportions.”
Although their attorneys argued for a dismissal or acquittal, both Zak and Lloyd were found guilty of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Zak was also convicted of violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Thomas Healy said “Our laws protect this nation’s natural resources to ensure their survival for future generations to enjoy. The people who committed these crimes made no effort to follow the legal and responsible procedures for dealing with the situation.” Zak and Lloyd each face a maximum sentence of six months in prison and a $15,000 fine for each violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Zak could also receive a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $5,000 fine for killing the eagle. Sentencing was scheduled for June 27th, but has been postponed until July.
Update: In July 2007, Zak was sentenced to six months in a federal halfway house, five years probation with no contact with firearms, and a fine of a $65,000 fine for killing protected birds on his property. His co-defendant and employee Timothy Lloyd received two years probation and a $1,500 fine.