Locals swoop in to help trapped eagle soar again

Illinois Conservation Police Officer Steven Vasicek (left) and Vertical Heartland Climbing...
Illinois Conservation Police Officer Steven Vasicek (left) and Vertical Heartland Climbing Instructor/owner Eric Ulner (right) worked together to rescue an eagle dangling upside-down by one leg from high in a treetop.
Updated: Mar. 4, 2019 at 8:22 PM CST
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CAMPBELL HILL, IL (KFVS) - A dramatic rescue unfolded in a treetop on a Campbell Hill cattle farm. A bald eagle’s life hung in the balance, and a group of people swooped in to save the day.

It started as a typical day for Bradley Rodewald and Cleetus Sanders of C-Bar Land & Cattle Company.

"We come here every day to feed the cows,” said Rodewald. “We just happened to be looking around up in the tree and saw a black blob."

Rodewald and Sanders first thought the blob was debris of some sort. Surely it was a trash bag blown in by the wind, they thought.

"The lower part was flopping every now and again,” said Sanders. “I decided well, that's something besides plastic. I walked over and could see it was an eagle."

The mature bald eagle had somehow managed to get caught in a tree branch and was hanging upside-down by one leg.

“We weren’t really sure what we were going to do,” Rodewald said. “It was pretty muddy, no way to get a bucket truck or somebody out there -- so we decided to call the game warden.”

Illinois Conservation Police Officer Steven Vasicek answered the call.

"One of the things that we do is wildlife rescue,” said Vasicek. “Whether it's mammals or birds. I've been involved with lots of hawk, eagle, owl, great blue heron, falcon rescues. You know, we go from chasing a felon through the National Forest to rescuing an eagle out of a tree. There’s just, never a dull moment.”

However, CPO Vasicek couldn’t pull off this rescue without a major assist. He called the only guy he knew with the technical expertise to possibly pull off a rescue 50 feet up in a tree: Vertical Heartland Climbing Instructor Eric Ulner.

“I was less than optimistic because of the height, and that it was on a run out on a thinner branch, so I knew it was going to be dicey,” said Vasicek. “I told Eric I said ‘you know if you're going to risk your safety or risk injury then -- don't do it. He didn’t bat an eye. He just started doing what he does and setting ropes and, throwing anchor systems up in the tree and setting different lengths of rope and making his way up there.”

The alternative was grim. Failure to free the bird would mean either leaving the animal to perish or being forced to euthanize it. Euthanasia posed its own difficulties as bald eagles are among the most protected species in the nation.

“I would have had to contact U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agents to get permission to euthanize it,” said Vasicek. “Which would have been better than hanging there dehydrating and stressing to death."

Armed with a pocket knife, a safety harness, and hundreds of feet of rope, Ulner began to climb the tree to the rescue.

"That eagle was stuck,” Ulner said. “Primarily by its foot being wedged, but then secondarily with its talon dug in on the opposite side of the wedge. It wasn't going anywhere."

Ulner inched close enough to reach for the eagle’s trapped foot.

"I knew I was clear of its beak, but I wasn't really thinking about its other free leg,” said Ulner. “Fast as a cat it grabbed my arm. Its talon went right through my Carhartt jacket and my sweatshirt underneath. It kind of prickled my skin a bit. It was telling me ‘don’t do that."

Even though Ulner was attempting to help the trapped animal, he says the eagle seemed less than enthused.

"If you’ve ever seen an eagle’s face – it’s got some serious stink eye looking at you,” Ulner said.

From then on, Ulner kept his distance and tried a different approach. He used his pocket knife to dig out the eagle’s entrapped talon and broke one of the branches that held the bird in place.

But the disoriented bird wasn’t out of the woods yet. It fell a few feet to branches below and became ensnared again. Ulner used a telescopic hook to latch onto the branch and finally the eagle was free.

"It dropped like a rock and threw out its wings and floated off,” said Ulner.

“There was a lot of hooting and hollering going on,” said CPO Vasicek. “Eric said something - ‘God bless America’ when it flew off. It was - it was very moving. Certainly, one of the highlights of my career.”

After the ordeal the bird appears to be only a little worse for the wear. Sanders and Rodewald say his wing feathers appear a little more ruffled than his cohorts, but otherwise he seems to be okay.

“He’s alive and well – I saw him this morning," said Sanders.

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