Bald Eagle Soars Toward Recovery

Only in the South are recovery programs failing to meet goals for reintroduction. NATIONAL SYMBOL

WILLIAM DAVIS peers through a spotting scope at a large nest in a tree about 300 yards away. ``How's the kid?'' asks Henry Rys Jr., who lives on the land Mr. Davis uses as his observation post.

``She looks great!'' replies Mr. Davis, eagle project leader of the Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife Service.

``She'' is B.B., a chocolate-brown American bald eagle chick and a participant in a nationwide effort to rebuild the bald eagle population in the United States. The 10-year effort has been so successful that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proposed upgrading the eagle's status from endangered to threatened.

When the breeding season ends later this month, the FWS will conduct a census of young eagles like B.B. - the final count before officials decide the birds' status. That decision could come as early as this fall.

``In the '60s and '70s, there were maybe 600 to 700 pairs of birds in the lower 48,'' says Paul Nickerson, chief of endangered species for the FWS's Northeast region. ``Now there are at least 2,600 pairs.''

Here in Massachusetts, B.B. is the fourth eagle chick hatched this year and the seventh since 1982, when the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife started an intensive eagle reintroduction program as part of the larger FWS effort.

All of the lower-48 states are trying to bring the bird back to its native habitat and range, says Daniel James, FWS coordinator.

The FWS began the recovery program in 1978, when the country's national symbol was declared endangered. It divided the country into five regions and developed a recovery plan specific to each. Teams of eagle specialists from each region calculated the number of successful nesting pairs needed before the bird could be considered safe there, then determined how to meet that goal.

B.B.'s ancestors had three strikes against them, Mr. Nickerson says: habitat destruction, careless shooting, and the use of pesticides, primarily DDT. The chemical prevented normal reproduction and caused egg-shell thinning.

The 1972 ban of DDT was perhaps the most significant contributor to saving the eagle, Nickerson says. But the programs within the FWS-coordinated effort are the reason the eagle population continues to rise.

Those programs tapped private resources, as well those of the federal and state governments.

In Arizona, for example, private citizens and federal and state government employees formed a ``Nest Watch'' program. Volunteers watched baby chicks around the clock: They rescued chicks that fell out of the nests and chased off bobcats, rock climbers, canoers, or bird watchers who came too close to nests. One volunteer climbed the tree to pull a bass lure from a chick's beak.

``Many of these birds would have died if it hadn't been for them,'' says Stephen Chambers, chief of the FWS's division of endangered species for the Southwest region.

In Colorado, education and stricter law enforcement proved to be the best path to recovery. A substantial rate of illegal shooting and poisoning occurs in the West and remains the biggest threat to the birds there, says Larry Shanks, chief of the FWS's endangered species program for the Rocky Mountain region.

``It goes back to the old ranching mentality that eagles eat baby lambs,'' he says. ``We've put a lot of emphasis on `Don't Shoot' brochures, public education, and law enforcement.''

About 20 states have started eagle reintroduction programs, where baby eagles are taken from their parents when about seven weeks old, raised and fed in large towers, yet with no direct contact from people, then released at 12 weeks old.

The hope, says Davis, is ``to get the bird to start looking around and say, `This is home.' '' When the birds are between three and five years of age and ready to establish a territory, they should return to where they were released, he says.

Corporate donations have also helped. In Massachusetts, for example, the Bank of Boston donated $65,000, which covered the major portion of the costs for equipment and supplies.

So far, four of the five FWS regions have met or expect to meet their recovery goals by the end of this year's breeding season.

``We have 30 to 40 nests in Montana, two in Kansas where there has never been any before, and Wyoming is doing extremely well,'' says Larry Shanks, chief of the FWS's endangered species program for the Rocky Mountain region. ``The eagle no longer meets the requirements of endangered.''

``All the states in my region [the Northeast] have increased eagle populations,'' Nickerson adds. ``Massachusetts had no birds, now it has five nesting pairs, New York has a dozen, New Jersy has five, Pennsylvania went from three pairs to 10.''

But the effort in the Southeastern region, which ranges from Texas and Oklahoma to Florida, has been unsuccessful, leading to a disagreement within the FWS over whether it is too soon to reclassify the bald eagle.

``Region 4 [the Southeast] is not in support of the reclassification,'' says Linda Finger, an FWS wildlife biologist for the region. ``We haven't met the requirements yet.''

This is primarily due to a lack of habitat, she says. The Southeast is required to have 550 nests distributed through 12 states under the current recovery plan. Some 440 eagle nests can now be found in Florida, 35 in Louisiana, and 46 in South Carolina. But the remaining nine states aren't even close to meeting their goal.

``If we reclassify the bird many people will think the bird is fine and we don't need to be concerned about it any more,'' Ms. Finger says. ``It will be more difficult to find money and support.''

There are other reasons for caution. Habitat loss is the main one, Davis says.

``We've got a big area that is an excellent eagle habitat,'' he says, ``but if we want the bird to come back and live in the areas it did historically, we must continue to preserve habitat, not develop it.''

``Also, something may happen like the DDT crisis in the 1950s and the population could plummet again,'' Davis says.

James, who will write the final proposal this fall or early 1991, says that the eagle may be reclassified on a case by case basis.

``Bringing it down a cut, based on the very happy fact that it is doing much better, says, `Now let's look at some other animals that need help,' '' says Christopher Leahy, of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Back in Turners Falls, Davis and Mr. Rys exchange pictures of B.B, like parents discussing the new child.

``Projects like this can work,'' Davis says. ``We can bring back things we've lost if there is habitat to support or sustain them.''

One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.

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