AUGUSTA, Maine — As a longtime forester, Gordon Mott remembers the days when the forests of Maine and Canada were doused with DDT in a desperate attempt to stop an insect eating away the hillsides.
Decades later, Mott is still pained by the thought that the well-intentioned use of this powerful pesticide drove bald eagles to the brink of extinction in Maine and throughout the continental U.S.
So the Lakeville resident said he was overjoyed Tuesday that Maine’s eagle population has rebounded so well that he could support a bill to remove the bird from the state’s list of threatened species.
“To have the opportunity to celebrate this event today … is a great privilege,” Mott told lawmakers.
Fewer than 30 pairs of eagles were still nesting in Maine by the time DDT was finally banned in the U.S. in 1972. Today, the number of nesting pairs in Maine is approaching 500 thanks to an aggressive recovery plan that is regarded as a national model.
Bald eagles were removed from the federal government’s list of endangered and threatened species in 2007. On Tuesday, biologists said it is time for Maine to follow suit and make the eagle the first species to be removed from the state’s own list.
“We are not going to walk away from the bald eagle,” said Charlie Todd, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and a widely regarded expert on eagles. “But we are admitting it is time to acknowledge our progress and take the eagle off of the list of endangered species because it no longer meets the standards.”
Eagles will still be protected under both state and federal law if lawmakers approve the bill, LD 66, which is sponsored by brothers Sen. Bruce Bryant of Oxford and Rep. Mark Bryant of Windham.
Anyone who illegally kills, wounds or even harasses an eagle could face up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The birds are also protected from harm by the federal Lacey Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and violators could face charges under Maine’s wildlife laws for killing a nongame species.
But removing the “threatened” status affixed to eagles in Maine could lessen some restrictions on landowners.
Maine’s “essential habitat” provisions currently require that many projects within one-quarter mile of more than 500 identified eagle nests be reviewed by state biologists for potential impacts. Landowners with eagles’ nests are also sometimes subject to restrictions on activities that could disturb eagles during times critical to re-production.
Todd pointed out that DIF&W would continue to monitor eagle populations by counting nests at least every five years. The state has also secured at least partial conservation agreements on more than 220 nesting sites with nearly 100 of those protected under secure conservation ownership or easements.
That “habitat safety net,” combined with the continued monitoring, should ensure that Maine’s population of eagles continues to climb, Todd said. But if the numbers begin to drop, biologists should notice the change long before the birds become threatened again, he said.
The delisting proposal has strong support from a variety of groups, ranging from Maine Audubon to the Maine Forest Products Council. No one spoke against the measure during Tuesday’s public hearing.
Members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife praised the department as well as landowners for their work with the eagles. Several lawmakers suggested, however, that the state should stiffen the penalties for killing an eagle if the iconic bird is removed from the list of threatened species.
Barry Burgason, a wildlife biologist with Huber Resources Corp. and chairman of the Maine Forest Products Council’s wildlife committee, also suggested that DIF&W conduct aerial surveys for nests more regularly than once every five years. Those surveys by trained biologists are important to informing foresters and land managers about new nest sites.
That information, in turn, helps land managers avoid cutting down a tree with a previously unknown eagle’s nest, he said.
“Just such a situation occurred about five years ago, and nobody is eager to go through it again,” Burgason said.
The committee is expected to discuss LD 66 during a work session on Thursday.