A farmer in Georgia who has lost an estimated $2.2 million worth of pasture-raised chickens to bald eagle attacks has won a restitution case as determined by a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The decision was handed down by USDA’s National Appeals Division (NAD) of the Farm Service Administration (FSA) following years of dispute between White Oak Pastures and FSA.
White Oak Pastures in southeast Georgia has lost nearly 160,000 chickens via bald eagles in the past few years after the farm expanded its pasture-based, organic chicken business in 2010.
Will Harris, owner of the farm, had filed claims with FSA seeking compensation for chickens lost to the bald eagles through the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP). The ruling by NAD determined that FSA had not followed its own rules in regards to compensating White Oak Pastures’ claims.
“The ruling is a win not just for us – but for all small farms everywhere. At White Oak Pastures, we are committed to animal welfare, regenerative farming and empowering and supporting our local economy,” says Harris, a fifth-generation livestock producer. “To survive at a time when conventional producers dominate the market, independent ranchers rely on equitable treatment by laws often written for big agricultural operations.”
When White Oak Pastures’ poultry operation grew to approximately 100,000 chickens, turkeys, guinea hens and ducks in open pastures in 2012, it was not long before bald eagles began roosting in trees around the property. The numbers of the federally protected bald eagles reached about 80 birds and they were preying on up to 30% of the farm’s chickens.
Eagles typically arrive in October and leave in March, although Harris says a few remain throughout the year.
During the winter months, the eagles kill more than 100 chickens every day and thousands of chickens per month. They feed from just before daybreak through mid-morning, then nap until mid-afternoon in the trees, and return to feed again until dusk.
Harris obtained a non-lethal permit to scare away the raptor population (killing a bald eagle carries a $100,000 fine and potential incarceration), but after cannons, flares, sparklers, carwash scarecrows, netting, tarps and 15 dogs, nothing has worked long term.
With the deterrents making little difference in the eagles preying on chickens, White Oak Pastures approached the FSA regarding the poultry losses and applied for LIP benefits.
Under LIP regulations, losses to federally protected species such as wolves and avian predators (including eagles and hawks) are eligible for benefits when “livestock deaths in excess of normal mortality.”
Harris documented his poultry losses, exceeding $125,000 in 2015 and again in 2016. When he shared his story with Farm Journal in 2017, Harris expected his losses to be higher that year. LIP pays up to 75% market value per dead animal, subject to reduction for natural mortality rates, with total indemnity capped at $125,000 per year.
After filing LIP claims with FSA, Harris’ requests was denied in 2017. FSA claimed that the farm failed to prove its livestock losses occurred as a direct result of avian attacks, despite intensive documentation, confirmation from biologists, and video and photographic evidence of the attacks.
An appeal by White Oak Pasture of FSA’s decision was filed with NAD. Following several appeals by both FSA and the farm, NAD officially ruled in White Oak Pastures’ favor on Aug. 21. The ruling determined that FSA’s decision was “erroneous” and that the agency’s request for proof was inconsistent with program regulations.
“We are extremely grateful that the National Appeals Division ruled in our favor and recognized our right to fair compensation for our losses,” Harris says. “We are proud to be a working farm, committed to doing what is right for the land and our animals, and appreciate the recognition that the FSA acted improperly when it denied our claims.”
Under the NAD ruling FSA has been ordered to work with White Oak Pastures to resolve the claims and issue a new decision.
In addition to raising poultry, the 3,200-acre farm also raises beef cattle, goats, sheep and hogs on the organic, pasture-based property.
Note: This story includes additional reporting from Chris Bennett who covered the issue in an interview with Harris during 2017 for a story called “Bald Eagles a Farmer's Nightmare”