Policies, organizations help bald eagle population soar

Posted Feb. 13, 2009, at 6:08 p.m.

For nearly 65 years, a bald eagle soaring in the thermals or maintaining a stately perch on a towering white pine on the shores of the Kennebec River was a rarity. But today, thanks to the hard work of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and a partnership of private and public entities, that has changed.

Recently, the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee — citing strong population numbers and extensive habitat — voted unanimously to remove the bald eagle from the state’s endangered species list. The move comes just 18 months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s removal of the bird from the federal endangered species list and should be hailed as a success story.

Indeed, the numbers indicate that nesting pairs will top 300 in the state, continuing a five-year trend and the largest numbers in six decades. Considering where we’ve come from — only eight eaglets fledged in Maine in 1965 — the figures are astounding.

As fish and carrion eaters, most of the eagles’ diet came from creatures in which the chemical DDT (dichlor-diphenyl-trichloroethane) had been accumulating. High concentrations of a DDT byproduct, DDE, damaged the eagles’ ability to retain calcium, dooming them to produce eggs with shells so thin that they collapsed under the weight of their brooding parents. Eggs that did survive simply never hatched.

When DDT was banned in 1972, many thought the problem was solved. Eagles gradually began to increase in the early 1980s as the residual effects of the chemicals slowly diminished. But, by the late 1980s, disturbances near nests — caused largely by land development — began to impair eagle reproduction. The Maine Legislature recognized the problem and enacted an essential habitat provision to the state endangered species act.

But in addition to regulation, the rise in nesting pairs is a result of conscientious landowners, who have played a key role in protecting and stewarding eagle habitat. And an increasing number of eagle nests also are benefiting from land conservation. Public agencies and statewide and local land trusts have protected nearly 33 percent of the state’s eagle habitat, a dramatic increase from the 5 percent protected some 25 years ago.

For example, through partnerships with the DIF&W, the University of Maine, landowners and many others, The Nature Conservancy has sought to provide eagles with the essential habitat to reproduce and prosper — from Falls Island in Cobscook Bay to Bald Head in the Lower Kennebec River. Efforts have been directed toward protecting their habitat from encroaching development and reducing human disturbance during the critical nesting season.

Now, as we celebrate the removal of the bald eagle from the endangered species list, it will take all of us to ensure it stays off. Conserving habitat will continue to foster healthy eagle populations in Maine, but good stewardship by private landowners and thoughtful policies by municipalities will always be needed to safeguard them.

And we must watch for new threats. A recent study by The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the BioDiversity Research Institute of Gorham, illustrates the ongoing man-made risks to the bald eagle. The study reveals mercury levels in eagles from New York’s Catskills region to be close to those associated with neurological and reproductive problems in the common loon.

It’s clear that partnerships to conserve habitat and promote good stewardship and thoughtful policies are paying off. Let’s make sure that the end of endangerment doesn’t mean the end of these efforts.

Michael Tetreault is executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine.

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