We must maintain and protect bald eagles’ habitat

Posted May 31, 2009, at 6:58 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.

Just last week, Gov. John Baldacci — citing strong population numbers and extensive habitat — signed legislation to remove the bald eagle from the state’s threatened species list. The move comes less than 22 months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s removal of the bird from the federal endangered species list and should be hailed 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, the figures are astounding.

In 1965, only eight eaglets fledged in all of Maine.

As fish and carrion eaters, most of the eagles’ diet came from creatures in which the chemical DDT, or 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 un-der the weight of the brooding eagles. Eggs that did survive simply never hatched.

When DDT was banned in 1972, many thought the problem was solved. Eagle numbers 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, too, and enacted an essential habitat provision to the state endangered species act. This allows formal review by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife of projects carried out by agencies and municipalities near eagle nests.

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

Years of hard work by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, conservation groups and private landowners are paying off. Led by Charlie Todd, Maine’s intrepid eagle expert, DIF&W has been actively reaching out to landowners, conservation groups and communities to protect eagle nesting sites and habitat through-out the state.

The Nature Conservancy has protected dozens of bald eagle nesting sites in Maine — 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. Through partnerships with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the University of Maine, landowners and many others the Conservancy has sought to provide eagles with the essential habitat to reproduce and prosper.

Now, as we celebrate the removal of the bald eagle from the endangered species list, it will take all of us to maintain and protect its habitat, especially those nest sites that are used habitually by generations of breeding eagles. 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 eagles and other native species.

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

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