On the day before the United States went to war with Iraq, Delegate George W. Owings III asked state lawmakers to protect the American bald eagle from terrorism.
The eagles evidently don't have to worryso much about Saddam Hussein's henchmen as trigger-happy hunters.
"What's happening in the Middle East has absolutely nothing to dowith trying to protect our national bird," said Democrat Owings, whorepresents rural South County and his native Calvert. "There are some people out there who will shoot these birds.
"I want to make sure that, when someone decides to do this, they get hit with a stiff penalty."
The bald eagle -- the national bird -- already is protected by federal and state laws. But Owings said a bill that he presentedto the House Environmental Matters Committee Tuesday offers more protection by creating additional penalties for hunting, capturing or killing an eagle.
Owings' bill sets a maximum $5,000 fine and one year in prison for a first offense; a $10,000 fine and two years for a second offense. Current penalties under state law include the same prison sentence but lower fines.
"The Supreme Court says we can't stop people from burning the flag because of the First Amendment," Owings, a former Marine, said. "I would like to see some American symbol,this living symbol, protected here in Maryland."
The numbers of eagles dwindled as a result of poisoning by such pesticides as DDT andhounding by farmers and hunters. After being placed on federal and state endangered species lists, Maryland's eagle population rebounded during the past decade, said Gary Taylor, director of the wildlife division of the state Department of Natural Resources. Last year, DNR officials counted 100 nesting pairs of eagles, up for the first time since the 1950s, he said.
Although the primary threat to eagles came from DDT, not hunters, the DNR supports Owings' bill, Taylor said.
"It focuses more public attention on the bird and it creates stricter penalties, which hopefully will deter anyone," he said.
The bill also would ban anyone from "salvaging" a dead or injured eagle, Owings said.
"I don't want to walk into someone's house and see an eagle's beak or foot," he said. "The symbolism of this bird deserves more than to end up on someone's coffee table."
Owings said he first introduced the bill unsuccessfully three years ago, after home construction disturbed an eagle's nest in Southern Maryland.