Backstory: The eagles have landed

Against the brilliant, crystalline sky, the leafless willow and cottonwood trees stand black and skeleton-like. They appear lifeless in their winter dormancy, waiting out the brittle cold and dry, dry snow for the warmth of spring.

But high in their twisted, arching branches is evidence of life and a significant comeback story. Four bald eagles, unmistakable with their white heads and tails, perch with a nonchalant fierceness, eyeballing the bird-watchers stopped along the gravel road here to eyeball back at these iconic national symbols.

Not long ago, bald eagles in the contiguous 48 states had dwindled to a relative handful. They'd become victims of habitat lost to agriculture and development, lead poisoning from buckshot and fishing sinkers ingested through the birds and fish they ate, and the chemicals of modern life - mercury, PCBs, dioxin, and especially DDT, which made eggshells thin and weak. Their numbers had plummeted from an estimated 100,000 during the American Revolution to fewer than 1,000.

But over the past 40 years landmark legislation and treaties, a captive breeding program, and habitat conservation have brought the bald eagle back from the brink. As a result, this year will see its removal from the official endangered species list. "The population has grown astronomically," says Cindy Hoffman of Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group.

The numbers are dramatic, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the designation and recovery of endangered species: From 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to an estimated 7,066 today. Every state but Vermont has nesting bald eagles, and urbanites in New York and St. Louis can drive out along the Hudson or Mississippi rivers to see the birds in the not-so-wild.

Here along the Oregon-California border at the six Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, as many as 1,000 eagles from as far north as Glacier National Park and Canada's Northwest Territories - the largest recorded gathering in the contiguous United States - spend the winter months along with snow geese, tundra swans, and myriad duck and other bird species totaling more than 1 million individuals.

At first light, they leave their night roosts in the big timber of Bear Valley several miles away, sweeping out by the dozens, headed for marshes, irrigation canals, and open water where migratory waterfowl congregate at one of the most important spots along the Pacific flyway. As scavengers, eagles feed mostly on dead ducks and other birds that have succumbed to disease or the harsh high-desert weather. Some stand along canal banks or on the ice, some perch in trees, some soar hundreds of feet above.

They're not flocking birds, so they tend to keep their distance from one another. As the nation's official symbol, they're apolitical of course. But they do seem to hold to "traditional" values - mating for life, remaining monogamous, and returning year after year to the same neighborhood (sometimes the same nest) to breed and raise offspring. Yet they exhibit modern, more liberated sensibilities as well; the males (typically smaller than their mates) share the housework chores and child-rearing responsibilities.

Because of the bird's dramatic comeback, federal officials last week issued draft guidelines for the continued care of eagles and their habitat once they're officially "delisted" under the nation's most sweeping environmental protection law, the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

"You have to recognize success when it's staring you in the face and move on," says Chris Tollefson, spokesman for the US Fish & Wildlife Service. "The Endangered Species Act wasn't intended to be a perpetual care ward."

That doesn't mean bald eagles will be without official protection. They're still covered under the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits shooting, poisoning, trapping, molesting, or disturbing eagles. Together with Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Russia, the US is obliged under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to prohibit the killing, transportation, and importation of eagles.

The Endangered Species Act went further than that in specifically protecting habitat while requiring a recovery plan for bald eagles. Recovery now is considered sufficient so that captive breeding and release are no longer required. Habitat conservation monitoring will shift to state agencies and private organizations.

The 1972 banning of DDT for most uses, as well as the phasing out of lead shot for waterfowl hunting during the 1990s, were major factors in the bald eagle's recovery. But the Endangered Species Act, with its emphasis on habitat protection, has played a major role as well.

One critter's habitat, though, can also be a landowner's property, and the ESA remains controversial because it can crowd what some see as property rights. Environmentalists and other supporters say the eagle's good-news story is proof that the law works and has prevented many more species from going extinct. Critics, including many conservatives, note that just a handful of more than 1,200 listed plant and animal species have totally revived under costly recovery plans that can take years to implement or even to design. The US House has passed a bill that changes several fundamental elements of the law, including protection of wildlife habitat and the reimbursement of property owners.

Throughout history, the bald eagle has always engendered its share of controversy. Even though the Continental Congress approved its image for the national seal in 1782, Benjamin Franklin, for one, considered it a bird of "bad moral character." "He does not get his living honestly," Mr. Franklin declared, referring to the eagle's propensity for stealing fish from hawks.

While admitting that his choice for national symbol, the turkey, was "a little vain and silly," Franklin saw it as a bird of courage that would "not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on." Congress disagreed.

Two centuries later, the eagle had become revered enough that then-US Attorney General John Ashcroft, an amateur baritone, composed a patriotic song titled: "Let the Eagle Soar."

But it's not political warblers that are on the minds of those who come to what's been called "the Everglades of the West." "There's always something going on that's exciting to a naturalist," says Frank Lang, a retired Southern Oregon University biology professor. He comes back again and again - to take in the waterfowl and songbirds that pass through every year, to hear the hawk's whistle and the coyote's yip, to stand in the shifting light of the high desert.

What it comes down to, says Dave Eshbaugh, executive director of Audubon Oregon, is "something that connects people to a feeling they have deep inside themselves, a feeling of connection with wildlife and nature."

But it's the eagles that are the top attraction. And exotic as they may be, some feel they're a lot like us. "We're at the top of the food chain and eagles are too," says retired state biologist Ralph Opp. "They do have some habits that people look down on. They are scavengers, but no different than people. We go where it's easy, and if we have to work for our food we will."

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