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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Eagles Return - An Endangered Species Act Success Story

Air Date: Week of

V.J. Gibson of Jefferson Public Radio in Oregon visits the Klamath River National Wildlife Refuge, home to the largest population of bald eagles outside of Alaska.


CURWOOD: Along with ducks, geese and other migratory waterfowl, the Pacific Flyway is also traveled by America's most revered bird: the bald eagle. Twenty years ago, when the Endangered Species Act was passed, the bald eagle was at the verge of extinction in most states. But today, there are over 3300 nesting pairs, and the largest portion of them outside of Alaska make their winter homes on a part of the Pacific Flyway known as the Klamath Basin, in Southern Oregon. The return of the bald eagle to the Klamath Basin is one of the few unqualified success stories surrounding the otherwise controversial Endangered Species Act. Reporter V.J. Gibson of member station KSOR in Ashland, Oregon filed this report.

(Sound of researchers counting)

GIBSON: It's startling to watch the bald eagles fly out from the Bear Valley roost in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Early on this chilly morning, eagle researchers stand in freezing temperatures to count 180 adult and sub-adult eagles in a single half-hour, flying from their nests to the feeding ground. Oregon Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ralph Opp spends a significant portion of his professional and private life in bald eagle study.

OPP: It's the waterfowl that they key in on. This is a major resting place, for some of 'em a major wintering place for the Pacific Flyway. We get over 80% of all the waterfowl that fly up and down the Pacific Flyway funneled right through the Klamath Basin still.

GIBSON: Eagles have been wintering in this area for thousands of years. The refuge straddles the Oregon-California border, following the broad basin created by vast wetlands surrounding the Klamath River. In the 70's land rush, when land was at a premium and everyone wanted it for their own use, land was set aside, providing a safe place for eagles to winter and increase their numbers. The protected area has grown since 1978 to nearly 4200 acres. Opp says eagles coordinate their migration with the waterfowl migratory path, their primary food source. He says as many as one thousand bald eagles come each winter to the Klamath Basin. The first eagles arrive in November. The largest concentration is in February and March. Each morning the eagles leave their night roosts and swoop down over the wetlands in search of easy prey.

OPP: Yeah, what they're doing now, they got onto the valley floor out here and hang around the waterfowl that are out here, all of the ducks, geese and swans, and they pick up the dead ones that have died from a variety of causes or they'll go out and kill something themselves.

GIBSON: Grain fields, flooded in winter for irrigation and rodent control, are part of the waterfowl refuge and provide an additional food source. Farmers harvest all or part of the grain under a cooperative agreement with the refuge. At night the eagles return to old-growth timber stands near the Klamath Basin. Bald eagles use five night-roost areas that edge the basin, the Bear Valley being the largest. Experts feel the preservation of these forests is the key to the steadily increasing number of bald eagles, as well as other species like the spotted owl. Ralph Opp says night roosts provide the birds with warmth and seclusion.

OPP: It provides 'em big trees to perch in, and this is a real key thing, it takes a big tree to handle a twelve-pound bird. Now here's a couple playing up here -- ooh, wow, they're all over the place here -- five, six birds, seven, eight birds right there. But the roost will provide 'em with those big trees and snags that they need and like to roost in and they'll bunch up in the trees.

GIBSON: Private timber owners manage their adjacent land for the benefit of bald eagles. They receive no payment from the government, but are more than rewarded by community goodwill created by their efforts. The successful comeback of the bald eagle here and elsewhere, has prompted interest in some states to delist or downlist the eagle from endangered to threatened. But University of Oregon eagle expert Frank Isaacs says that would mean less protection available, and make the eagle more vulnerable to economic activity and development decisions.

ISAACS: If we don't have enough money to continue monitoring, and we don't have enough money to finish the planning processes we've started, we could start losing ground. To me the future problem is the loss of habitat, because eagles are increasing, they're recolonizing some of their old places, but human populations are also still increasing, so those lines are gonna cross somewhere and somebody's gotta decide how many bald eagles we're going to have.

GIBSON: The bald eagles and waterfowl in the Klamath Basin don't exist in isolation. Habitat for migrating birds has become a collective problem, and the US Forest Service has already begun efforts to manage habitat nationally and internationally, to avoid the extinction of any migratory species. Only with broad cooperation can the Klamath Wildlife Refuge continue to thrive. For Living on Earth, I'm V.J. Gibson.



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