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Falconer provoked eagles, report says

     
By Elisa Ung

Inquirer Staff Writer

 Jan. 04, 2005

 

A licensed falconer cited in the death of a baby bald eagle on Petty's Island was deliberately disturbing the endangered birds to see how much they could tolerate, a state investigator concluded in a report.

Tom Cullen of Goshen, N.Y., had been hired by Cherokee Investment Partners, which plans to build housing and a golf course on the island as part of a $1 billion waterfront development project in Pennsauken.

Cherokee fired Cullen after his blind was found near the birds' nest and the state sent him a notice of violation.

"It is apparent that the point at which the eagles would become disturbed was desired by Cherokee and sought by Cullen," the state investigator, Lt. Tod Eisenhuth, wrote in an August report obtained through an open-records request from an environmental group.

"It seems to me that one of the purposes of erecting the blind so close to the nest was to test this threshold repeatedly... . Cullen's proposal and monitoring were designed to disturb the eagles," Eisenhuth wrote.

Cullen declined to comment on the report yesterday, and his attorney, Peter Ginsberg, would say only that he had no knowledge of the allegations. "I don't believe Tom's done anything wrong," Ginsberg said.

A state spokeswoman said that Cullen had rejected a $20,000 settlement offer, and that the matter was still in negotiation. Cullen has not been criminally charged.

Cherokee officials say their new experts have seen the eagles building another nest in Camden's Cramer Hill section - which the North Carolina-based firm is targeting in a separate $1 billion redevelopment project.

Cherokee spokesman Rich Ochab said it was too early to tell what this meant for the Petty's Island project. The Camden nest is in an area Cherokee has already designated as a park, he said.

Cherokee experts believe the Cramer Hill site, just across the Delaware River from Petty's Island, is "a more beneficial location" because it is stable, higher and more accessible, Ochab said.

Karen Hershey, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said she could not confirm the second nest and said it would not necessarily mean the eagles were moving. "Often eagles will build multiple nests and move back and forth," she said.

Officials from Citgo Petroleum Corp., which owns Petty's Island and wants to donate it as a nature preserve, said that in the last week they had seen the two adult eagles frequently on the island near their current nest, which is about three or four years old.

"This is their home," Citgo environmental manager Jack McCrossin said. "Literally, it's a Tiger Woods 3-iron from one nest to the other."

Cherokee had hired Cullen to observe the eagles, whose presence has led Citgo and environmental groups to support a nature preserve.

Pennsauken officials support constructing a golf course and homes on the island. They say development can be sensitive to the eagles, who nested on Petty's despite the presence of a trucking company and industrial debris.

State documents about Cullen, which include a report he wrote for Cherokee, were obtained by Fred Stine, a coordinator with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which opposes the development.

Cullen devoted a section of his report to "Tolerance to Human Disturbances" and noted that the eagles were apparently undisturbed by traffic from the trucking company.

Cullen also noted that a kayaker could get within 50 yards of an eagle before it took off, and that the eagles would allow walking approaches of about 200 feet before leaving the nest.

According to Eisenhuth's report, Cullen's blind was 94 feet from the tree.

In a statement, Cherokee said it had "hired Tom Cullen as an independent and nationally recognized expert to observe the behaviors of eagles and other wildlife on Petty's Island and monitor how the animals coexist with the intense industrial development around them."

The company, which did not have formal access to the island when Cullen visited it, said he was supposed to clear his work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and observe the eagles only from long-range, fixed positions that required binoculars or scopes.

McCrossin said that Cullen had lied about his identity to get onto the island, and that the company had no record of Cullen on its sign-in entrance logs.

The report said Cullen put up his blind May 27. A volunteer eagle observer noticed the eaglet was missing June 4.

Six days later, it was found injured and limping, and it died on the way to a rescue facility. "The timing between Cullen setting up his tent and the apparent departure of the baby eagle is noteworthy," Eisenhuth said.

In another investigative report, filed in July, Eisenhuth wrote that Cullen said "the eaglet must have whacked itself somewhere. He said it was even possible that it had been hit by a car and injured... . He said it wouldn't take much to break the eagle's bones. I said the bones must be pretty fragile, and he said no, that they were strong."

"This sort of contradictory banter was common throughout our interview," Eisenhuth wrote. "He said that there might [be] some sort of deficiency that could have resulted in the lack of bone density in the bird."

Eisenhuth said Cullen said he had not been involved in eagle monitoring programs before. The investigator said Cullen said he respected and admired the birds but "doesn't really like eagles because they have a bad attitude."

 

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