Should we downlist our national symbol? Thanks to factors from the DDT ban to its personal charisma, the bald eagle may soon soar off the endangered list. But then what? - includes related information on Klamath Basin Bald Eagle Conference
Smack in the middle of campsite No. 62, a pair of bald eagles have staked out their claim. Their keen eyes scan Union Valley Reservoir from a 180-foot ponderosa pine.
Of the estimated 80 bald-eagle nesting sites in California, eagles first returned to this one on the El Dorado National Forest in 1986. Each year since-except 1988, when reservoirs were low and food scarce-they have returned and produced a chick. Absent here for over 30 years, their recent return has sparked biologists' hopes that similar revivals will occur in forests across the continent.
The number of breeding pairs today, approximately 2,600 in the lower 48 states, signals a healthy increase from 1960's census of 800 pairs. Nonetheless, human encroachment has taken its toll; experts estimate that just 200 years ago, 50,000 eagles flourished in the U.S. Given those figures alone, bird enthusiasts would gasp in horror. The good news is that eagles are steadily increasing their populations, and have met goals for reclassification downward from "endangered" to "threatened" in four of five regional recovery plans encompassing the 48 contiguous states.
Reasons for the eagle's success are many. Banning the pesticide DDT was a critical factor in halting the bird's decline. Protective management over the last 15 years by federal and state agencies and environmental groups has also helped reverse the trend.
First indications of a connection between eagle decline and DDT use were discovered in the early 1960s. "We were seeing an awful lot of adults, but not many young," said Daniel James, bald-eagle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. DDT inhibits the transfer of calcium, causing eggshell thinning. Eggs would crack under the weight of nesting birds, and in some cases, chicks were laid with no shell at all. The Environmental Protection Agency banned the pesticide in the U.S. in 1973.
In that same year, the Endangered Species Act was passed. Following a survey conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1974, the bald eagle (haliaeetus leucocephalus) was listed as "endangered" in all states except Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where it was listed as "threatened."
Under the act, a cooperative effort involving the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service is helping to protect nest trees.
"Anytime we find a bald-eagle nest, the objectives for timber harvest in that area change completely," said Mary Ann Armijo, wildlife biologist for California's Tahoe National Forest. "No longer are we just growing timber-we're growing eagle nesting habitat. We write a silvicultural prescription for that stand that meets the needs of the eagle."
Long-range planning is a critical element in the eagle's future. Timber stands are being managed with the objective of producing bald-eagle habitat 100-200 years from now.
"Bald eagles are relatively easy to manage in the context of forestry," said Phillip Detrich, Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "We're not out there harvesting their forage habitat. They depend on lakes and wetlands for food, and they're not directly in the path of the use of forest resources, like spotted owls are."
Commercial thinning can serve a dual purpose-both enhancing eagle habitat and bringing in timber revenues. Thinning stimulates faster growth of leave trees (those left after logging), some of which may become nest trees 10 to 20 years ahead. Armijo said that thinning opens up a stand, making it more suitable to eagles than a closed canopy. "While some other animal species require old growth stands left alone, you can actually improve eagle habitat by doing a little logging."
A good example of this practice is occurring on Oregon's Winamac National Forest. Since 1981, biologists have been managing primarily for eagles along the west side of Upper Klamath Lake, an area designated the Bald Eagle Management Area.
"We're trying to reinstate the natural stand conditions that existed prior to the white man's altering of the ecosystem," said Rick Hardy, biologist on the Klamath Ranger District. This involves thinning, prescribed burning, and a 240-year rotation. Pointing out that 90 percent of the area is stocked with white fir, Hardy said that management is specifically targeted to propagate ponderosa, sugar pine, and Douglas fir, the eagles' preferred nesting habitat. Ten pairs currently nest here.
"Eagles nesting or wintering in areas not under federal or state jurisdiction are in the most danger," Dan James told me. "The greatest threats are going to come from the private sector, where the Endangered Species Act has less authority."
Incorporated into the recovery plans is a breeding criterion of 1.0 young per active pair. This ratio includes successful as well as unsuccessful reproductive results for all pairs in a given area. Of the five regions-Pacific, Southwestern, Northern, Chesapeake Bay, and Southeastern-the Southeastern is the one farthest from the recovery goal of 600 occupied breeding territories. In 1989, 583 had been identified there.
Downlisting in the Pacific Northwest region is being strongly considered since the number of nesting pairs steadily increased between 1985 and 1989. In 1989, nesting territories reached 788, only 12 from the goal of 800 set in 1985.
Zone-by-zone population goals were set in 1985 with data then available. According to Karen Steenhof, research biologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho, attaining goals within individual zones has been slower. Much information has been accumulated in the past five years, and before any final decisions are made, she told me, the Recovery Team needs to "reconvene and fine-tune the goals."
Despite the Exxon Valdez oil spill, eagles continue to thrive in Alaska, where the species has never been listed as endangered and now numbers some 30,000. Their abundance is due largely to the rich prey base of salmon and steelhead trout.
The bald eagle shares the endangered list with some 400 other species that equally deserve our support but are much less visible to the public. "We have a couple of snails that people are less enthusiastic about," said William Radtkey, endangered species program manager for the Bureau of Land Management. "Those snails are no less important, probably, in the grand scheme of the world than bald eagles. " But public awareness is important people need species they can relate to and care about.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has been criticized for exorbitant expenditures for bald-eagle recovery versus dollars for other endangered species. Biologist Dan James told me, "I think it's more appropriate to spend your money where it'll do the most good, and we should be spending our money on those species that are the most critically endangered. " However, recognizing the clout of a status symbol, biologist james went on to point out, "A handful of highly visible species like the bald eagle, California condor, manatee, black-footed ferret, and peregrine falcon can carry the day, funding wise, for less visible and perhaps more needy species. "
The eagle is a charismatic symbol, and people rally to its survival. So, though funding for it appears inordinately high, biologists point out that incoming funds filter down and benefit less visible species as well-even snails.
Views about downlisting differ. James, who monitored results of the public comment period that ended last March 30, said, "It's probably fair to say there was more empathy for leaving the bald eagle as an endangered species than for upgrading its status to threatened. "
James noted that "threatened" means significantly diminished, but not to the point where a species is likely to become extinct. "That's really where we think the bald eagle is today," he said. "I don't think the bird is likely to become extinct throughout significant portions of its range, but it's not fully recovered yet either."
Even if the Fish and Wildlife Service downlists the eagle to threatened," the Endangered Species Act would still afford it protection. Following delisting, a species is still monitored for a period of not less than five years. The act provides that if a species shows a significant decline or something catastrophic occurs-such as a hurricane or pesticide threat that wipes out large numbers-that species would be put back on the endangered list right away.
Since the Paleolithic Age, when drawings of eagles were first etched on the walls of European caves, these splendid raptors have stood for strength and freedom and immortality. They may have been given their first reprieve when they were named our national symbol in 1782. If Congress had taken Benjamin Franklin's suggestion and given that honor to the wild turkey, the bald eagle would most likely be extinct in the lower 48 today. The bird has hardly regained its original numbers, but its populations are building all across the U.S.
"Bald eagles are special," said Frank Isaacs. "People go out of their way to do things for them."
A Gathering of Eagles - and Watchers
The Klamath Basin in south-central Oregon and northern California hosts the largest concentration of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. During January and February, over 500 birds gather there, drawing crowds from across the U.S. For three days, participants in the Klamath Basin Bald Eagle Conference watch, learn about, and play an active part in the management of the birds.
"You can stand there at dawn, and 200 eagles will fly over your head," remarked Frank Isaacs, senior research assistant at Oregon State University.
Sponsored by the Klamath Basin Audubon Society in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Oregon Institute of Technology, the conference is unique in that it is geared toward the lay person, not the wildlife professional. "Eagles do belong to people, not agencies," said Ralph Opp, Oregon wildlife biologist who founded the program back in 1979.
The gathering is held in Klamath Falls, Oregon, each February on President's Day weekend. For this one, the dates are February 15-17, 1991. Registration is limited to 500, and an early signup is a good idea. For more information, contact Ralph Opp, Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, 1400 Miller Island Road West, Klamath Falls, OR 97603; phone 5031883-5732.