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Mystery Illness Deadly for Bald Eagles

By: Dana Brueck
By: Dana Brueck

Banners in Sauk City boast it is where bald eagles soar, but a mystery illness is causing the majestic bird to die.
Experts do not know what's causing the problem along the Wisconsin River.
Visitors to Sauk Prairie try to spot a bald eagle overhead, but you can also spot the bird's image downtown ... at a dental office, hardware or liquor store and local mall.
John Keefe of the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council says, "It's one of the things that I think is just built into culture of community."
In part, because the local economy soars when Eagle Days arrive. Just ask the owner of the Eagle Inn.
Todd Baker says, "it's something we look forward to every year ... always big event for us."
The river's open water in winter draws the American symbol that Americans flock to see.
Keefe adds, "they're a marvelous beast, which is what it boils down to."
A nearby dam is one of the best sites for eagle viewing, but experts fear something in or along the Wisconsin River could be causing an illness that now bears its name.
Local veterinarian Joe Kelley says people ask him about it almost everywhere he goes. Kelley saw the first case of what is now the Wisconsin River Eagle Syndrome more than ten years ago. Experts say it causes seizures and lesions on the liver. It has killed roughly 50 eagles since first discovered.
Kelley says, "intuitively you think maybe it's contagious. It's in this area, in soil, every year the eagles come here ... pass it between each other."
But Dr. Kelley has found no evidence of that.
He says, "it'd be great if we could find the cause of it so that on an individual basis we could treat those one or two or three or four each year. Certainly if it became an outbreak we'd want to be prepared for it."
But until then, this source of pride also remains a source of concern."
Kelley says, "the eagles are at the top of the food chain. And that's where Americans see themselves, right? We can identify with them and that's what makes this so, kind of, close to our heart."

The DNR says test results from one eagle this season show it died from the illness. The agency is waiting for results on four other eagles found this year.


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