No Rest For Friend of Bald Eagle Challenger
By Duncan Mansfield
AP Environmental Writer
February 17, 2007
Pigeon Forge, TN – February 2007 —Look into the piercing yellow eyes of a Bald Eagle named Challenger and you sense the travails of America’s national symbol.
“He is probably the most famous eagle in United States history,” said Al Cecere, founder of the nonprofit American Eagle Foundation. “You could be walking down Times Square and people will come up and ask, ‘Is that Challenger?'”
For 16 years, Cecere and Challenger have traveled the country making appearances. They’ve been to five World Series, countless NASCAR races, the Olympics, professional football games, TV talk shows and the White House.
In big stadiums, Challenger is known for opening his 7-foot wingspan as the national anthem plays, soaring above the crowd and swooping down to Cecere’s outstretched arm.
Challenger may be the closest many people will ever get to a real Bald Eagle. Yet this majestic 18-year-old bird doesn’t relate to his own kind.
He was raised by humans after being blown out of a Louisiana nest at a young age and was never able to survive in the wild. He was released three times, but would always land near people and beg for food.
The last time, at a lake near Nashville, he was nearly beaten before being rescued.
Wildlife officers brought him to Cecere, a New York native who worked in the country music business until he saw a newspaper photograph of two dozen eagle carcasses shot by poachers in the Dakotas and decided to do something about it.
Unlike the birds of prey taken in by Cecere’s foundation, which is championed by Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park, Challenger had no physical problems. “He has a mental disability. Because he is a human imprint, he thinks he is a person,” Cecere said.
“One day, God just gave me this vision,” said Cecere, 58, a man of faith and father of five. “He said, ‘This bird is physically perfect and you could be reaching a lot more people with this message if he could fly in stadiums.’ And we just pursued that vision.”
Cecere’s group named the bird to honor the crew killed in the 1986 space shuttle explosion and began training him to fly to a hand offering a piece of fish. Now, the bird has a roost the size of a stable stall and a gold star on his door.
He still chirps like an eaglet – the only eagle language he knows – and likely will never mate.
“It is unfortunate that he couldn’t survive in the wild, but he has done a lot of good,” Cecere said. “This guy has been a great ambassador for his species.”
Over two decades, Cecere’s organization – with Challenger’s help and exposure – has been involved in monitoring and releasing about 300 eagles in Tennessee. Many were transplanted from Alaska or born in captivity to non-releaseable birds.
Not all stayed in Tennessee. While the number of successful nests in Tennessee has risen from one in 1983 to 60 in 2006, many eagles released here have ended up elsewhere, including Kentucky, Virginia and Michigan.
The American Eagle Foundation continues to operate the largest captive eagle center in the country at Dollywood, all birds recovering from mishaps or unable to survive on their own. At any time, as many as 70 birds, including 35 bald eagles, are under the group’s care.
When President Clinton declared in 1999 that it was time to remove the Bald Eagle from the threatened and endangered species list, Challenger and Cecere were there.
“People all across our nation banded together to guard nest sites, to nurse injured birds like our friend Challenger here back to health,” Clinton said.
From an estimated population of more than 100,000 breeding pairs of Bald Eagles when European settlers arrived in North America, the national bird fell to the brink of extinction – just 417 pairs in the Lower 48 states were recorded in 1963.
But the ban on the pesticide DDT in 1972, the creation of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and reintroduction efforts have this unique North American species soaring again.
Confirmation of a reproducing pair in Vermont last year means the eagle has now re-established itself in all of the Lower 48 states, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Valerie Fellows.
The national eagle count for 2006, still being tabulated, is expected to surpass 9,500 breeding pairs, she said. That doesn’t include Alaska, which alone has more than 40,000 Bald Eagles.
Yet eight years after Clinton’s eagle delisting announcement, the Fish and Wildlife Service is still working on the details. (The situation isn’t unique to Bald Eagles. Only 18 of 1,311 threatened or endangered species have been removed from the list since its creation.)
A federal judge in Minnesota gave the service a one-year deadline to decide how Bald Eagles will be protected under two other federal laws – the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Before the deadline expired Feb. 16, he granted an extension to June 29.
The National Audubon Society, like most environmental groups, supports delisting the eagle so limited resources and attention can be redirected to more troubled species.
“We are totally in favor of it,” said Greg Butcher, the group’s director of bird conservation. “We believe the Bald Eagle has recovered and demonstrates a successful application of the Endangered Species Act.”
Under the older laws, it still will be a crime to hunt or capture eagles, raid their nests or take their feathers.
Cecere supports delisting too, but he doesn’t think the eagle’s fate is yet secure. So he and Challenger walked the halls of Congress for several days in 2004 to win support for an eagle commemorative coin to finance post-delisting eagle monitoring and habitat projects.
The coin, with Challenger’s image, will be issued by the U.S. Mint in 2008 and could raise as much as $10 million for the fund.
More recently, Cecere and his favorite eagle have been promoting a letter-writing campaign by school children to governors and to Congress to declare an American Eagle Day each June 20th – to mark the day in 1782 when the Second Continental Congress picked the Bald Eagle as the national emblem.
“Our whole goal is to keep them wild,” Cecere said, reflecting on the careful handling of captive-bred eaglets as much as America’s eagle population as a whole. “We don’t want them to have the same problem that Challenger had.”