AUGUSTA, Maine — Declaring the bald eagle officially recovered in Maine, Gov. John Baldacci signed legislation on Tuesday to make the iconic bird the first species to be removed from the state’s list of threatened plants and animals.
The governor signed the bill in Capitol Park a short distance from the Kennebec River where 30 years ago an eagle sighting would have been rare. Maine was down to just 20 nesting pairs in 1978, and most of those were Down East.
Today, the story is much different.
Eagles now nest in every county in the state and can be spotted regularly from the downtown waterfronts of more urban places such as Bangor or Augusta. Biologists expect the number of nesting pairs in Maine to surpass 500 this year — likely more than the combined eagle population in all other states north of the Chesapeake Bay.
“It seems that whenever you bring up a story of having seen a bald eagle, others have similar stories to share,” said Baldacci as “Lawrence,” a captive eagle from the Maine Wildlife Park, waited nearby with his handler. “People are proud to see such an impressive bird, an American symbol of freedom.”
Bald eagles were removed from the federal Endangered Species List two years ago after the number of mating pairs in the lower 48 states exceeded 10,000. State officials decided to follow suit last year, arguing that the number of birds and the steady growth rate in recent years just couldn’t justify keeping them on the state’s list any longer.
“Such a powerful environmental law has to be used fairly,” said Charlie Todd, a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist who has spent a career working to rebuild eagle populations in the state.
Eagle populations were decimated throughout much of the U.S. due, in large part, to the accumulation of the chemicals in the environment. The primary culprit was the pesticide DDT, which made the eggshells of eagles and other birds near the top of the food chain too brittle to survive.
Todd and other biologists at DIF&W, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and universities and conservation groups worked tirelessly to save those few remaining eagles and then began the slow process of rebuilding one nest at a time.
As Maine’s eagle population grew, eggs from this state were used to help restore eagles to other states.
Mark McCollough, a USFWS biologist who has worked with Todd since the two were graduate students in the 1970s, acknowledged Tuesday that contamination levels were so high back then that he didn’t think the eagle would ever be delisted.
“It gives you hope that other species can be removed,” said McCollough.
Removal of the eagle from both the state and federal lists does not mean that the birds are no longer protected, however.
The birds are still protected by several federal laws, including the Bald and Golden Eagle Act, which prohibits anyone from killing eagles, destroying nests or disturbing the birds to a degree likely to injure the animal, reduce productivity or cause nest abandonment.
Violators also could face charges under Maine’s wildlife laws for killing a nongame species.
State biologists will continue to monitor eagle populations, and review some development projects around their nests, although not as extensively.
Another critical component to long-term protection of the eagle is the fact that more than 150 nesting sites have been permanently preserved by the state and another 230 are under some level of protection thanks to the cooperation of landowners.
The star of Tuesday’s ceremony was undoubtedly Lawrence, a juvenile eagle that suffered a broken wing in 2007 when strong winds during a large storm blew him from his nest along Sebago Lake to the ground 80 feet below.
The bird’s wing was so badly injured that it had to be amputated, meaning he would never survive in the wild. Lawrence is now housed at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray and travels around the state to help educate the public.
Baldacci and many of the ceremony’s other attendees posed for pictures with Lawrence with the State House in the background after the bill signing.