The Fact of the Matter Is…
From the Files of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities (GHAA)
Q - What is the story behind the eagle bounties paid to the early homesteaders of Gustavus?
A - Well, first of all it’s very difficult for any of us today to think of the majestic bald eagle as something that was once valuable to get rid of! And yet it was a different time and place and that is exactly what the pioneers of Strawberry Point and all of Alaska believed and did.
Here’s the story. During WWI (1914-1918) the citizens of the United States began experiencing steeply rising food costs. By sheer necessity, everyone across the entire nation had to look for ways to “tighten their belts”.
In Alaska, fox farmers were complaining that a vast number of eagles were taking their young blue fox as they left their dens. The fishermen were submitting pleas for help accusing the eagles of killing large quantities of spawning salmon. Because of the pioneer’s limited abilities to gather food, make money, and support their families in remote locations, the situation was seen as unsustainable. The state of Alaska agreed that eagles were the culprits and that the very livelihoods of their residents were being threatened.
In 1917 the Alaska Bounty Law was enacted which paid 50 cents for a pair of bald eagle feet. By 1923 the price was increased to 1 dollar. This was a very significant amount of money that could supplement the homesteader’s meager incomes and reduce the number of eagles felt to be endangering their ability to feed their families.
Homesteaders would hunt and shoot the eagles by boat, by horseback or on foot. Hank Johnson devised his trapping system on top of poles and baited them with rotting fish. The feet would be removed, tagged and preserved and sent to Juneau on the sometimes-monthly mailboat. The settlers would eagerly wait their bounty earnings while they continued to hunt for more—a wait that could take months by return mail.
Between 1923—1940 over 80,000 eagles were reported killed. In 1953, the eagle (amidst rising alarm by conservationist across the country) was declared a protected species and could no longer be hunted.
But old habits and attitudes died hard. Many of the Gustavus homesteaders like Leslie and Glen Parker would continue to view the bald eagle nearly 50 years later as a virtual pest and felt that elimination of as many of them as possible was warranted.
Here’s some perspective in today’s dollars. Fifty cents in 1917 would be equal to $8.33 today. And one dollar in 1923 would be equivalent to $12.51. Add this value to the fact that the pioneers felt they saw more agreeable numbers of blue fox survival rates, and higher numbers of successfully spawning salmon to fish. Given the circumstances, it is not too difficult to see why it was felt “the more pairs of feet the better”.
One thing to remember. In studying history we should be careful not to judge those that found the necessity to kill these incredible birds based on the understanding and needs that they had at the time.
Louis L’Amour once said, “We accept the verdict of the past until the need for change cries out loudly enough to force upon us a choice.” Thankfully, today the eagle soars unmolested. Tomorrow who knows what changes will cry out?