Once Again, a Land of Eagles
©American Forests Magazine | Archives | Autumn 2002
By Charles Enloe
Once bordering on extinction, our national symbol is making a soaring comeback in forests nationwide.
In the aftermath of September 11, national symbols took on a whole new meaning. Flags sprouted from car windows, strip malls, and politicians’ lapels. Americans sang the national anthem and “God Bless America” with fervor, and an American bald eagle glided into Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the World Series.
The national bird, majestically soaring across skies in the lower 48 states and in Alaska, is a fitting symbol for the resilience that has marked the American people over the last year. Once on the verge of extinction due to habitat loss, chemicals, and hunting, bald eagles were downgraded from endangered to threatened in 1995. And with numbers continuing to climb, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to delist the eagle altogether. Although sightings of the majestic bird are not common, more and more people are reporting seeing the 7-foot wingspan that symbolizes life, liberty, and the top of the food chain.
But despite their comeback, eagles face a multitude of threats. The biggest is development, which continues to destroy the tall trees they favor for their nests. Habitat restoration and preservation are key to continued success. American Forests is pitching in with Global ReLeaf tree-planting projects in areas that eagles call home. Projects in Delaware, California, Kansas, Wyoming, and other spots across the nation will help ensure the eagle’s continued prosperity.
A Soaring Comeback
American Forests has planted 19,950 pines and oaks to reduce runoff, expand habitat and benefit balds at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge along the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The project was planted in partnership with Exxon Mobil.
“No matter how many I see, I still love to see bald eagles, and I see them everyday,” says refuge manager Martin Kaehny. Eastern Neck has four active nests.
Further inland, Tom Miller, ranger for Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, says bald eagles are the prime attraction for the refuge’s visitors.
“It’s a very beautiful bird . . . [and] a fierce looking predator. I think people are drawn to that sort of thing,” he says.
Marylander Meme Wells-Susnavick has watched eagles over the years at Blackwater and around her home. “To be out in the wild and hear the distinct call. . . it makes anyone stop and take notice,” she says. “When you talk about the American eagle and it being the American bird, I think it’s a fascination for anybody. . . school-age child or adult.”
When Bruce Freske sees 20 to 30 eagles winter at the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas, he is not only fascinated, he is impressed. The manager of the refuge, which contains mostly bottomland hardwood forests and is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says he has never seen such a large eagle population.
“They’re at historic highs,” Freske says. “There are probably more eagles here than there were at the turn of the century.”
Freske hopes to see even more in the future. A recent Global ReLeaf project on the refuge planted 60,000 oaks, pecans, shagbark hickories, and sycamores on a former pasture. Now nearly five years old, the trees have done most of their growing underground, in the root structure. But down the road, those trees will grow into the kinds of large trees that eagles prefer when it’s time to lay eggs, and Marais des Cygnes might just see summer-time nesting pairs as well.
Talk of an expanding eagle population would have seemed outrageous mere decades ago. The American Eagle Foundation estimates that bald eagle numbers in what would become the United States may once have been as high as 500,000. But populations began a fast decline with the onset of European colonization. Hunting, pollution, and habitat destruction took their toll and eagle numbers continued to drop through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, an eagle sighting takes the breath away; not that long ago it looked as if the actions of humans would take the eagles away.
Bald eagles got their first big break with the passage of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940. The act prohibited the taking, possession, sale, purchase, transport, export, or import of any bald eagle, eagle part, or egg. The law stopped the most flagrant attacks on eagles, but the birds were far from safe. Habitat destruction continued, and a new enemy was discovered: DDT.
In the 1960s it was learned that the chemical insecticide, widely used in the United States, caused peregrine falcons to lay thin-shell eggs that often were crushed by the nesting adults. This effect, which occurred after the birds ate smaller animals that had ingested DDT, was soon also found in eagles. The use of DDT in the U.S. was banned in 1972, but the outlook for eagles remained grim: Fewer than 400 nesting pairs remained in the lower 48 states.
The first signs of recovery came with the advent of stricter protection laws. In 1973, the American bald eagle became one of the first species listed as endangered under the new Endangered Species Act. Al Cecere, founder and president of the nonprofit American Eagle Foundation, says the ESA was important because it extended protection to eagle habitat, something the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act did not do.
“One of the major benefits for the eagle in its recovery has been strict laws protecting eagles and their habitat,” Cecere says. “The protection was so strict in so many areas that it gave the eagle what it needed to make a comeback.”
And come back it did. Cecere estimates that there are now 6,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states, up more than 1,500 percent from their lowest levels. Miller, from the Blackwater refuge in Maryland, says the recovery is an additional draw for eagle watchers.
“So much publicity and so much effort has been put into bringing them back, I think that’s one thing that really gets people into them,” he says.
The eagles were doing so well that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded them to threatened status in 1995. Four years later, the USFWS announced a proposal to delist the species entirely. The process has dragged on as experts study how best to protect eagles under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, but Cecere says the time is right.
“The ESA was designed to recover species,” he says. “At some point, you’ve got to send your kids off to college and see how they do.”
Under the Act, a delisted species must be monitored for at least five years to ensure that no new threats emerge. Cecere calls this continued observation a key part of the delisting process.
“Just because a species is taken off the list, that doesn’t mean somebody won’t be keeping an eye on it,” he says. “It’s not like we’re just throwing the eagle out into the wild totally on its own.”
Willie Fitzgerald, a wildlife biologist at the Bureau of Land Management’s Casper Field Office in Wyoming, agrees that vigilance will be required. The Casper area, site of an American Forests’ Wildfire ReLeaf project that reforested a burned area with more than 31,000 ponderosa pine, is home to a dozen bald eagle winter roosting sites. The eagles tend to roost in huge ponderosas in northeast-facing canyons among the hills that dot Wyoming’s mile-high prairies. Fitzgerald said these areas will have to be watched carefully after delisting, so that when the eagles glide majestically back to Wyoming each winter they don’t find their habitat destroyed.
“We have land-use decisions that protect the winter roost sites. It’s possible over the long term that the land-use decisions would be changed,” he says. “The justification was due in large part to [the eagle] being a threatened species.”
Habitat and Development
Habitat protection is perhaps the most important issue the USFWS will have to settle before delisting the eagle. Cecere says he is concerned the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act does not protect the habitat areas around eagle nests as the ESA does.
“[The BAGEPA] is a very good law,” he says. “The only problem is it didn’t address protecting eagle habitat, nesting territory around a nest. Technically, somebody could go right up to a nesting tree and develop.”
The issue is especially crucial because habitat continues to be threatened by development. Al Rizzo, who coordinates the fish and wildlife partnership at the USFWS’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, says that highways, infrastructure, sprawl, and even agriculture continue to destroy the tall trees near water supplies favored by eagles for nesting.
To combat such habitat loss, Rizzo’s office is pursuing an aggressive reforestation policy throughout Delaware, which has lost a sizable portion of its biodiversity, due in large part to deforestation. Using two Global ReLeaf grants, the USFWS, along with the Delaware Forest Service and the National Resources Conservation Service, has planted more than 225,000 trees statewide. The plantings, which are continuing this year, create wooded buffers along streams and agricultural ditches.
The project also helps tie together patches of forested land. Rizzo supports the “conservation corridors” called for in the 2002 Farm Bill, a similar concept that will allow eagles to travel throughout the state in forested areas, moving among the bodies of water and fish populations they try to stay near. “[We are creating] a landscape portrait that will ultimately develop into eagle habitat,” Rizzo says. “[We will] try to maintain some unbroken forest corridors for them.”
Rizzo’s focus on habitat is echoed by his colleagues across the country. Freske, of Marais des Cygnes in Kansas, says the very existence of the refuge, which was created in 1992, helps eagles.
“Previous to  the forests would be logged,” he says. “The bald eagles need large, mature trees, especially for nesting. Now that we don’t allow logging, we’re going to allow trees to mature.”
Dave Ross, a forestry technician at California’s Klamath National Forest, agrees. He oversaw a recent Global ReLeaf project at the Three Sisters Bald Eagle Winter Roost that planted more than 33,000 ponderosa pines in partnership with retailer Coldwater Creek. Ross said the continental United States’ largest winter roost needs replacement trees for the eagles.
“Long term, they have to be old-growth type trees,” Ross says. “The few trees we have are practically dying off. The idea is [the new trees] will be habitat in the long term.”
Cecere says we need to realize the damage humans can do to the magnificent eagles and their habitat and change our practices accordingly.
“All of the places eagles select for nesting and foresting are places we tend to want recreated,” he says. “We need to make people aware that we’re sharing these rivers and lakes and streams and oceans with the eagle and other wildlife, so we need to enjoy ourselves in a way that won’t be a detriment to animals like the eagle.”
Despite potential setbacks and the need for continued vigilance, all agree that the eagles are back and will continue to recover. “As long as there’s not any major catastrophes down the line,” Cecere says, “I would guess that the eagle’s recovery will continue.”
That’s good news for all Americans. AF
Michelle Robbins is editor of American Forests.
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