MONTE VISTA, Colo. (CBS4) -- A Rio Grande County man has been convicted of killing five bald eagles, along with other animals and birds, in the San Luis Valley.
John L. Divine, 77, pleaded guilty to 10 misdemeanors of illegal take of wildlife and using poisons to kill wildlife, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials.
He paid $8,283.50 in fines.
Divine told wildlife officers that he put out the poison because he claimed coyotes were killing his sheep.
"His actions caused the death of multiple species of wildlife, including five bald eagles, a coyote, a fox, magpies, crows and ravens," CPW Wildlife Officer Jeremy Gallegos said in a statement released Friday. "Putting out poison is dangerous and can be deadly for wildlife, domestic animals and people."
The investigation started on Jan. 13, 2017, when Gallegos received a call from a man who reported that he'd found parts of a domestic sheep in a culvert in Saguache County that appeared to be slathered with poison -- with several dead magpies nearby.
Gallegos collected seven dead magpies and took the parts of sheep carcass for evidence.
Gallegos returned the next day and found another dead magpie and more pieces of a dead sheep freshly placed in the area, according to the statement. He set up a game camera nearby to monitor the site around-the-clock.
He returned again the following day and found what appeared to be a sheep's liver coated with a liquid, along with another dead magpie.
Gallegos checked the game camera and found photos showing a white pick-up truck at the site and a man carrying what looked like the sheep's liver. The man in the photo was identified later as Divine, a local rancher.
On Jan. 21, 2017, Gallegos and another officer spotted the truck and pulled Divine over.
"Divine said he was trying to stop the coyotes and that he'd put anti-freeze on the sheep. He also said he'd only baited one spot and then he led the officers there," officials stated. "But it was not the same location that Gallegos had initially investigated."
After more questioning, Divine eventually admitted also to baiting at the other location. Gallegos issued a ticket to Divine and he paid a fine of $362.50.
However, a few days later, on Feb. 3, 2017, Wildlife Officer Tony Aloia received a report of a bald eagle that appeared to be sick at a location about a mile away from one of the bait sites.
The officer found the eagle and captured it. But while he was there he found carcasses of two more eagles, a coyote and a red fox, according to the statement from CPW. A third dead eagle was later found in the area.
The injured eagle was taken to CPW's wildlife facility at Frisco Creek where it was nursed back to health and released back into the wild on March 30, 2017.
Then, in March, two more dead bald eagles were found in the same general area.
"To determine the exact cause of death, the dead animals were taken to CPW and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service testing labs on the Front Range. Samples of the bait were also submitted for analysis. Results showed that it wasn't anti-freeze the animals ingested but Furadan, a pesticide that had been banned by the EPA in 2009 because it caused unacceptable health risks," CPW officials stated. "The chemical had been used to control insects, but was also found to be killing migratory birds and posed a serious danger to humans."
"The evidence clearly showed that all these animals were killed by the pesticide put out by Mr. Divine," Gallegos said.
Divine was cited with new charges in late November 2017. Divine admitted guilt and eventually paid the fine.
Officials said reports about the dead animals from landowners were critical in solving the case.
"Without these individuals taking that step to notify us, we probably would have never known fully why the bald eagles were disappearing in the area, and there wouldn't have been any accountability for the individual responsible," Gallegos said. "It goes to show that we all can be a voice for wildlife."
A representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that poisoning is one of the top five factors in eagle mortalities nationwide.
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