What is the real status of the bald eagle population? Newspapers and magazines are bombarding the public with articles about how many bald eagles we presently have. Many conservation organizations have joined the band wagon, rejoicing about the wonderful recovery the bald eagle has experienced since the early 60's when the population was at its low point.
Before we celebrate too loudly I feel we should take a realistic look at what the facts truly are. There are only a couple of us still alive who were studying the bald eagle at that time (in the early 1960's) and are aware of what the facts really were.
The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to take credit for bringing the bald eagle population back from the brink of extinction. They want to take credit for saving the bald eagle by the banning of DDT by our nation.
Our nation did not ban DDT until 1972. Then there had to be several years for the DDT level in the environment and in the bald eagles' bodies to drop to a safe level. Today most bald eagles still have DDT in their body fat, but at a lower level than we found in the early 1970's.
By the time DDT was banned the bald eagle population had begun to recover. It was definitely on the road to recovery before the bald eagle was placed on the Endangered Species List, (ESL), on July 4, 1976.
If DDT was not the cause of the decline of the bald eagle, what was the cause? My contention is that we do not really know for sure. If we don't know what caused it, how can we prevent such a decline from reoccurring? This really worries me!
The research done at the University of Minnesota by Dr. Dan Frenzel and his graduate students in the mid 1960's determined that one of the greatest problems with bald eagle reproduction was human disturbance of the bald eagles while they were nesting. They recommended that during the first six to eight weeks of nesting, humans be kept at least a quarter of a mile away from the eagle nests.
The US Forest Service, first in Minnesota, and then across the nation, adopted this recommendation as a rule for human conduct near the nesting birds. I know that once the US Forest Service enforced their rules that protected the bald eagle nests on National Forest Lands from human disturbance, our bald eagle population started to recover. Was this the actual reason for the recovery, or did it just occur at the same time? Maybe time will tell.
The bounties, like those on wolves, coyotes, and great horned owls, which Texas and Alaska had on Bald Eagles in the early 1950's, were removed. Perhaps this action had as much to do with the bald eagle's recovery as anything.
One of greatest things the FWS did was to monitor the bald eagle recovery. Once the FWS really got involved, after the bald eagle was placed on the ESL, they applied the same human disturbance rules around the nests on their lands as the Forest Service had been enforcing on their lands.
Larry Forbis and Teryl Grubb with the US Forest Service in Tempe, AZ determined that human disturbance to the nests in Arizona was a major reason for the southwestern population of bald eagles to have low reproduction
Once they had organized a corps of volunteers to watch each nest during the nesting season and kept people away from the nests, their bald eagles started to be successful in raising young and their bald eagle population started to recover.
Some years back the FWS lowered the bald eagle's status from being Endangered in some states and Threatened in others, to just being Threatened in all the lower 48 states. They have remained on this Threatened Species List (TSL) for about 10 years
The driving force behind the bald eagle being taken off the Threatened Species List, TSL, in 2007, was actually a judge in a developer's lawsuit directing the FWS to remove the bald eagle from the TSL. It was not the "phenomenal" recovery of the bald eagle as the news reports indicate.
The facts are far from that:
1. When the bald eagle was taken off the TSL, the FWS was involved with a lawsuit in AZ against such action in AZ, stating that in 9 out of the last 10 years the bald eagles in AZ have not raised enough young to maintain their population.
2. Researchers in Idaho claimed that the bald eagles in their state were raising the fewest young per nest that had been recorded for the past ten years.
3. During our 47th Annual Midwinter Bald Eagle Count in January of 2007 the Eagle Nature Foundation recorded the lowest percentage of immature bald eagles in over 40 years in the area from Minnesota to Tennessee. This may even have been a historic low percentage of immatures in the Midwestern bald eagle population.
During ENF's 55th Annual Midwinter Bald Eagle Count the fewest number of bald eagles in close to 25 years was documented. The only encouraging thing was that the percentage of immatures, 28.9%, was greater than the 55 year average of 27.2%.
All of these facts seem to indicate there is definitely a problem with the bald eagle population. But these facts fly in the face of all the hype that has recently been in the newspapers and magazines. In trying to find a reason for this extreme difference of opinion I discovered several interesting things.
The bald eagle was not delisted in Arizona because the Indians proved to the court that there were no facts to back up the action to delist the bald eagle. They were able to prove to the court that the decision to delist the bald eagle was made by someone high in the Fish & Wildlife Service and the order came the pipeline ordering employees to make the data fit the decision.
Since 2000 none of the government agencies have had the manpower or finances to pay for needed monitoring or protection of bald eagle nests. All they do is add new nests that are reported to them and record them as active territories. None of the inactive old nests, which have been blown down or abandoned, are removed, so every year there are more and more nesting territories on their "official" list.
They don't even monitor these nests to determine which ones are active. They just extrapolate the numbers using percentages that were developed in 2000, when the bald eagle population was at its peak.
They don't have the manpower to monitor the nests to see how many young are actually raised. They just use the last reproduction rate, from the year 2000 or so, and apply it to this bogus increased number of nests. So each year there is a doubly bogus increase in the estimated number of young bald eagles in each state.
Theoretically, now that the bald eagle has been removed from the Threatened List the FWS is mandated to monitor the bald eagle nests every five years. With no supported funding it will be interesting to see how this will be done. I can only assume that it will be done the same way it is now; by contacting each state and asking someone sitting behind a desk to give his or her estimate of the bald eagle population and its reproduction in that state.
On February 21 of 1965 during my winter research of the bald eagles near Cassville, WI, my crew and I counted over 450 migrating bald eagles flying past. There was a steady stream of bald eagles migrating overhead from before 9:30 in the morning until after 4:00 in the afternoon. And this was at a time when our bald eagle population was supposed to be at a low point.
On only a few days since then has such a migration ever been observed. During that same winter on several different occasions we witnessed six or seven mating chases of bald eagles all occurring at the same time. During the last few years we are really lucky to see even one chase at a time. To me this indicates that there are fewer young being absorbed into the breeding flock than we had in the mid 60's.
Why are bald eagles not producing young like they used to? There are many possible reasons. West Nile Virus could be affecting the young eagles. There could be a lack of proper food near the nesting tree, during the period when the adults need to find the most food for their young at 10 to 13 weeks of age.
The many new chemicals in our environment, many of which are even stronger than DDT, may be having their effect on both the bald eagles and their food chain and/or their eggs. Something is definitely occurring that is removing our immatures from our skies. Are the birds starving before or after they leave the nest, or are they being poisoned or dying from some disease.
Whatever it may be, we have to determine what that reason is, as soon as possible. The first step in finding such a reason is for people to acknowledge there is a problem and start looking for a cause.
At least since the bald eagle reached its peak in 2000, we have had very little effort on the part of our government agencies to protect the eagle's habitat or enforcing the protection of the nesting areas. In a recent printed decision to allow a high sulfur coal strip mine near Rice Lake the Illinois Department of Natural Resources states that "the status of the bald eagle has since changed such that the species is not in the desperate situation as existed at the time that the Rice Lake unsuitability decision was rendered." (1983) The inference is that because of the bird's recovery we no longer have to protect bald eagle habitat.
Recent bald eagle news stories always seem to quote the large number of bald eagles that can be seen in certain locations of the country. Most of these locations have always had large numbers of eagles. They have not gotten a large number of eagles just since the population has improved.
With all of the Bald Eagle Day celebrations being conducted around the country during the past five years I find it very interesting to hear about the fewest bald eagles most of them have seen during the past five years than they saw in previous years. The many excuses for this poor showing of bald eagles have been varied, but I did not find one story expressing a concern that perhaps there were just fewer eagles. And in the past five years I never saw one story about an eagle day celebration which had the most bald eagles they ever had.
We have now conducted our one day Midwinter Bald Eagle Count for 55 years. This count now has many more volunteers counting in many new locations. If we just consider the same locations we looked at in the mid 1960's, we now have far fewer bald eagles counted, and the percentage of immatures is now consistently less than 10%.
This year, 2015, for the first time ever during our four hour bald eagle tour, when we visited the 5 historic bald eagle wintering communities 4 of the 5 communities were completely void of bald eagles.
The bottom line is that our bald eagle population is not as healthy as many people seem to believe. The statement by Fish & Wildlife Service personnel that our nation is producing more bald eagles every year is definitely not truthful, or based on any facts. Our nation needs to remain more vigilant in our efforts to protect the bald eagle, its habitat, its food and its nesting.
If we don't, the handwriting is on the wall, another species will disappear. Only this time it will be our National Symbol. Wake Up America!