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

Bald Eagles Back From the Brink

Air Date: Week of

Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports on the comeback of America's most famous endangered species. Thanks to strong legal protection and the banning of DDT in the United States, bald eagle populations are growing, and the federal government may upgrade the birds from endangered to threatened. Not everyone's cheering the news; some worry that the upgrade may lead to a decrease in crucial preservation activities.


CURWOOD: A quarter-century ago, our national symbol, the bald eagle, was on its way to becoming extinct. But since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in the early '70s, upwards of $30 million has been spent to protect the magnificent bird, and the effort has paid off. So well, in fact, that the Federal Government is considering upgrading the status of the bald eagle from endangered to threatened across most of the United States. That would be a pretty unusual move. Very few species have been upgraded from the endangered list; most that have been removed have come off either because the original data was wrong, or because the species went extinct. But now some biologists say the success of the eagle is proof that the Endangered Species Act can work. Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

WINTER: In northern Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest, it's not unusual to see the hunched shape of an eagle roosting in a tree, or eagles circling over lakes and rivers looking for fish. On a foggy fall morning, wildlife biologist John Mathisen walks through the forest to a creek to visit an eagle nest. He points out a mass of sticks, about five feet across, high up in a pine tree.

MATHISEN: You can usually see it about two-thirds of the way up.
WINTER: It's huge!
MATHISEN: Usually they're big enough that you can go lay down in 'em if you want to.
WINTER: Will it hold you?
MATHISEN: Sure. That's, when we band 'em that's what we do, we go up and sit in it and band the young ones.

WINTER: Mathisen has been collecting information about eagles in the Chippewa National Forest for thirty years. In his office, stored on his computer, he has information about every one of the 186 eagle nests in the forest.

(Sound of computer keyboard; Mathisen's voice: "So that nest was found in 1986, and that year it had zero young.")

WINTER: When Mathisen first started collecting data, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Today there are close to 4,000. Minnesota has more bald eagles than any other state besides Alaska, and Mathisen says there are so many eagles in the Chippewa National Forest that they're running out of good nest sites.

MATHISEN: So we see them at least attempting to build nests in places we never would have thought to look for them before, like around buildings and along highways and so on.

WINTER: Bald eagles were listed as endangered in 1967 in most of the United States. Eagle habitat had been destroyed by logging and development; people killed eagles, mistakenly believing they harmed livestock; and the insecticide DDT accumulated in eagles' food, making the birds' eggs too fragile to hatch. Biologists say the main reason eagles are doing better now is that DDT was banned in the US in 1972. But they say human efforts to help eagles have been crucial too.

(Voice: "You can go ahead and give him his fluids -" and eagle sounds)

WINTER: At the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, an injured eagle opens its curved beak and clucks in protest as a veterinarian looks at its bandaged leg. The Raptor Center treats injured birds and returns them to the wild. Such projects are expensive; public and private organizations have spent millions of dollars on bald-eagle recovery. But they've helped bring bald eagles' numbers up to the point that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering changing the bird's status from "endangered" to "threatened" everywhere except five Southwestern states. Whether they're listed as threatened or endangered, eagles would still be protected by Federal law. But Raptor Center biologist Mark Martell says if the eagle's status is "upgraded," money could be steered to species that need more help. And he says changing the listing makes a statement.

MARTELL: It's important to recognize that even though it was a lot of work and expensive we can turn around the plight of endangered species, that when we set our minds to it, and protect animals, protect their habitat, that we can reverse what seems to be a pretty drastic trend that's towards extinction. I think we have pulled the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction and that needs to be recognized.

WINTER: Some conservationists support the proposal to change the eagle's status. But attorney Brian O'Neill, who represents the Defenders of Wildlife and other environmentalist groups, says he doesn't want to see money steered away from bald eagles. He says when eagle habitat is protected, other animals also benefit.

O'NEILL: When you eliminate a threat to eagles, by way of example strychnine, you're eliminating a threat to kit foxes, grizzly bears, every kind of migratory bird that exists. So I'm not so sure I want all of the money moved from eagles to obscure mussels.

WINTER: Supporters of the proposal say changing the eagle's status shouldn't be an excuse for ignoring it. Mark Martell from the Raptor Center says biologists must continue monitoring eagles and watching for future threats.

MARTELL: That's very important, habitat protection, a clean environment without a lot of toxic chemicals in it, people not shooting birds, all of those things have to continue to happen, we have to still be aware of the bird and be looking out for it, we can't just revert to old habits because all of our efforts will be for nought then.

WINTER: Officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service won't comment on the proposal to change the bald eagle's status because it's only a draft at this point. Once a formal proposal is released, the public will be invited to comment before the agency makes a final decision. The director of Fish and Wildlife is expected to release the formal proposal before the end of the year. For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Winter in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.



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