How do you value a bald eagle, or a timber wolf, or a bobcat, or a blue jay, or a skunk?
And when it’s been killed illegally, how does a court calculate the loss to the public in dollars and cents?
A recent criminal case in Wisconsin highlights the difficulty in answering those questions. And that’s where Ed Clark comes in.
Clark is president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a teaching and research hospital for wildlife and conservation medicine. He’s also an expert witness for the Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Justice Department and other agencies, testifying about how to calculate the financial value of wild animals.
We’ll get to how he does it later in this article, but first the background on what Clark characterized as “a rather dramatic case” and what Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) chief warden Todd Schaller described as “complex and lengthy.”
Here’s the story:
A Wisconsin father and son, Alvin and Paul Sowinski, pled guilty to illegal possession of one federally protected bald eagle.
As part of their sentence earlier this month, they paid $100,000 in restitution, with the money divided among the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin DNR.
The plea bargain also included a $30,000 fine for Alvin and a $10,000 fine for Paul. In addition, U.S. District Judge James Peterson barred Alvin from hunting, fishing and trapping for seven years, while Paul received a five-year ban.
The criminal conduct detailed in court filings and in a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s office involved far more than possession of a single bird, the reduced charge they pled guilty to. In total, the government confirmed 81 dead animals, according to its sentencing memorandum, and poisoning was “extensive and repetitive” for at least three years.
Rather, from 2007 through 2010 Alvin Sowinski poisoned wildlife on the 8,000 acres they own in Sugar Camp, Oneida County, according to federal and state investigators. About half the land is used as a potato farm.
“The purpose of the poisoning was because of the belief that predators were destroying their efforts to raise game on their property, including pheasants and deer,” said the prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Atty. Peter Jarosz.
Here are some key details drawn from court documents:
In May 2007, a DNR warden found a dead bald eagle, crow, squirrel and bobcat within 100 yards of a poison-laden deer carcass on the Sowinski property. All tested positive for the pesticide Carbofuran, which Alvin Sowinski was licensed to use for farming.
Three years later, law enforcement officers found at least nine sites on the Sowinski property that were baited with the remains of deer, beaver and processed meat. A coffee can with antifreeze was found at one of the bait sites, and Carbofuran was found at several sites.
Officers discovered three dead ermine, as well as ravens, crows, five coyotes, a bobcat, a skunk and a red squirrel at those sites. And when the officers returned, they found more corpses: among them, three eagles, five coyotes, a black bear, a hawk and a weasel.
“Finding these animals in this manner during the investigation is consistent with poisoning, as noted in the ‘circle of death’ analysis” in an officer’s report. “An animal who has eaten poisoned bait will be found a certain distance from the poison depending upon the amount consumed and the size of the animal creating distinct concentric circles of dead animals emanating from the poison,” the prosecution said in its sentencing memorandum.
A trail surveillance camera videotaped Paul Sowinski stopping his all-terrain vehicle, picking up one eagle near a bait pile and “tossing it into the brush.” He later returned, retrieved the bird and “tossed it on a burn pile,” according to court documents.
He also admitted disposing of a dead gray wolf in an abandoned truck on the property. At the time of the incident, the wolf was federally protected but the Fish and Wildlife Service later removed it from the endangered species list.
Jarosz said the father did the poisoning and the son — who knew about the poison baiting — helped cover up the crimes. That included throwing two dead eagles into the woods and burning a third eagle carcass “because he did not want authorities to find it and did not want to get anyone in trouble,” the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a press release.
The sentencing memorandum said, “The unfortunate fact that wildlife went onto the Sowinski property did not entitle the Sowinskis to do whatever they want with that wildlife. Paul Sowinski claims he did not approve of his father’s poisoning, but instead of reporting the incidents or even just eliminating the poison bait piles, his decision was to hide evidence.”
Jarosz said that under federal law, “all relevant conduct” is considered in sentencing, not only the specific crime that a defendant is convicted of.
In this case, only part of the damages could be calculated specifically, $42,000 in actual costs incurred by the federal government to clean up the contaminated sites.
An “extremely difficult issue,” as Jarosz put it, is “the value of the wildlife, not only federally protected species — migratory birds and the timber wolf. It included state-protected species — ermine, bobcat, black bear.”
In this case, the federal government sought restitution for only the federally protected wolf and birds.
Back to Ed Clark, the prosecution expert.
In the 1980s, Clark developed a protocol for putting a price tag on wildlife. It originated with a situation in which the operators of a private shooting preserve in Virginia had illegally trapped hawks and migratory birds.
His approach treats wildlife as property, much like real estate, without factoring in such intangibles as spiritual value or aesthetics. If a house is destroyed, what would it cost to rebuild it? If a house is damaged, what would it cost to repair?
So too with wildlife.
There are three types of calculation possible, he explained: First, if an animal — a bald eagle, say — is killed, “what will it cost to breed that animal in captivity and get it to the state of maturity that it can take the place of one taken illegally?”
Replacement means actual replacement — “restoring to the ecosystem an animal that is able to quite literally replace the one that was taken,” he said. Thus a chick isn’t an actual replacement for a 16-year-old eagle. In court papers, the prosecution cited Clark’s $2,500 valuation for the poisoned turkey vulture, “based on similarity to large hawks, with adjustments for size, slow rate of maturity and longevity,” while dead crows and ravens were valued at $450-$750 each “based on size, similarity to raptors, with adjustment for relative ease of rearing.”
Second, if an animal is illegally shot and wounded, what would it cost to rehabilitate it so it could return to the wild?
And third, what is the animal’s fair market value “where a legal market exists” in the United States or abroad. As an example, he noted that birds of prey such as falcons can legally be sold.
“The nuance and art form is then saying, ‘One eagle is 1 year old, this other is 7 years old. Are they valued the same? Having one live chick does not assure you’ll end up with a viable breeding adult.”
He said only one out of three bald eagle chicks on average survives to maturity, so you need at least three chicks to guarantee one viable adult.
Under the law, doing the math for restitution is a matter of determining the “empirical value” of an animal, without regard to what people consider a “popular species” or the rarity of the anima. For comparison: a stolen folding chair has a fixed value, whether it’s the only folding chair in a house or one of 1,000 in an auditorium.
“Social valuation is not what’s being asked for. That’s entirely subjective,” Clark said. For example, farmers may consider crows to be a nuisance, while Native Americans may believe that crows have spiritual significance.
Many such criminal cases involve eagles that are killed illegally, and their values are well-established, Clark said: $10,000 for an adult bald eagle and $5,000 for a juvenile.
In the Sowinski case, Clark’s said he was asked to make calculations only for the federally protected species that were killed.
In addition to restitution and fines, the Sowinskis could have been sentenced to up to a year behind bars but the judge didn’t impose any jail time.
The plea bargain precludes further charges for the Sowinskis’ other past federal and state criminal violations.