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POWER LINES TAKING A TOLL ON EAGLE POPULATION

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An estimated hundreds of eagles are killed in Wyoming each year by power lines, and federal wildlife officials concede they aren't doing a great job at preventing the electrocutions.

Electric lines appear to pose at least as significant a hazard to eagles as illegal use of poisons and poor habitat, they say."No matter what, it's obvious that electrocutions are one of the three biggest man-made mortality factors affecting golden eagles in the Rocky Mountain West," said Stephen Hoffman of Hawk Watch International, based in Albuquerque, N.M. "Habitat degradation and poisonings are the other two. I'm not sure which has the greatest impact."

Wyoming has the highest concentration of large raptors in the lower 48 states.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials acknowledge that enforcing anti-electrocution laws has been put "on the back burner" or done in a "piecemeal" fashion.

"Wyoming's unique," said Neill Hartman, deputy assistant regional director for law enforcement. "Electrocution is a big problem but it's not the biggest problem. Law enforcement up there has to deal with the illegal commercialization of wildlife, the taking of endangered species, taking by contaminants and a hundred other things."

And the state has only two wildlife law enforcement officers, one in Lander and one in Casper.

"To do everything right it would take at least 19 or 20," Hartman said.

Utility company representatives say they are concerned about the problem and are working actively to correct it. However, much of the problem lies with smaller companies with fewer resources to deal with lines that kill eagles and temporary lines set up to serve mines and drilling rigs.

Pacific Power has hired a full-time biologist to address nothing but the problem of raptor electrocutions in the seven states it serves. Utility spokesman Monte Garrett says the company has spent "millions working up thousands of miles of lines in seven states."

"Any new lines are designed so that they don't present a problem," he said. "We've been working to retrofit older, existing lines and we're well beyond 50 percent."

But even with cooperation of large utilities, the problem is still extensive.

USFWS biologist Virginia Moran said power lines owned by smaller companies often cause the most damage.

Rural electric associations don't always have the money to raptor-proof power lines "without some prompting," she said. "And miles of temporary lines cause problems we may never hear about."

Any electrocution resulting in the death of a bird included in the Migratory Bird Treaty automatically makes a company liable for costly penalties.