The B.C. Conservation Officer Service is investigating what one officer described as an "abhorrent wildlife crime," after the dead carcasses of between 14 and 18 eagles were found earlier this month discarded in plastic bags along a rural road in the South Cariboo region.
The cause of death has not been determined but the dead birds have been transferred to a veterinary lab for testing.
"It's beyond my wildest dreams why anybody would want to shoot such a majestic and helpless creature," James Zucchelli said.
"Basically, they're scavenging – out on the range there's afterbirth and there are things that are attracting them – and just to shoot them and dump them is just horrible."
The birds range in age from immature to mature and include at least one golden eagle, said Mr. Zucchelli. The rest are believed to be bald eagles.
Conservation officers don't yet know why anyone would kill the birds, which were placed individually in garbage bags and dumped along North Bonaparte Road south of 100 Mile House.
A member of the public alerted authorities.
In his 16 years as a conservation officer, Mr. Zucchelli said he's never seen anything like this.
"There are tests being done on the cause of death to determine potential poisoning and or shooting," he said.
"We can use all forms of forensic analysis on the birds and on the contents of the birds' stomachs and other information that we can gather from the birds themselves and in the bags that could potentially lead us to suspects."
He said he hopes to have the results of those tests within a month.
The service doesn't want to disclose further information about what they've gathered so far, but Mr. Zucchelli said it does not appear the eagles were poached for ceremonial purposes, which has occurred in the past in B.C.
He said the service is considering the possibility that a livestock producer may have killed the eagles believing they were preying on newborn calves. It's calving season on cattle ranches throughout B.C.
"There has been long-held myths about eagles and calves, that eagles will kill calves. However, it's a very, very rare circumstance and it's more based on the husbandry of the producer," he said.
Biologist David Hancock called that belief "nonsense."
"That's been disproven time and time and time again," said Mr. Hancock, founder of the Hancock Wildlife Foundation and its popular "eagle cams."
An adult female eagle can lift three pounds, he said.
"There's not many calves that are three pounds," he added. "It's total nonsense."
But eagles have been hunted in the past. Until 1953, the U.S. government offered a $2 bounty for them.
"Today, these are the most treasured animals of our ecosystem," Mr. Hancock said. "But there are people who have got this old attitude that everything that's alive is a competitor."
Eagles are scavengers and do feed on dead calves and afterbirths. They will also happily scavenge the remains of any animal killed by wolves or bears – including calves, he said.
It's migration season for eagles, which are returning north from wintering grounds. They are just beginning to nest in the Interior.
"If they're shooting migrant birds that are passing through, you're not going to see the influence on the local population," Mr. Hancock said.
"But if you're shooting the nesting birds, well … it could affect the local population because if these were nesting birds, my goodness, that could have eliminated all of the nesting birds for a region."
A year ago, the remains of eight bald eagles and one golden eagle were found in a ditch near Kamloops, south of Bonaparte Lake. In that case, the heads, feet, tail feathers and wings of all nine had been removed.
There is a bustling black market for eagle parts, primarily for use in First Nations regalia. But while there are illicit sales in North America, the largest demand is in Europe, Mr. Hancock said.
"There's a huge market in Europe for people who want to have headdresses," he said. "That's a really serious problem – people selling the feathers."
The Conservation Officer Service is asking members of the public with information about the bird deaths to contact its anonymous tipline at 1-877-952-7277.