Port Hadlock, Wash. — The majestic bald eagle was almost lost to America due to deforestation and the caustic chemical legacy of DDT. Now the eagle has made a comeback for the ages. From a low in 1963 of 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states, to nearly 10,000 nesting pairs today, the recovery and delisting of the nation’s iconic symbol marks a major achievement in conservation. This due in no small part to the conservation efforts of America’s military.
Here in the greater Pacific Northwest, the U.S. Navy’s efforts to maintain low density development on its installations has resulted in the doubling of the nesting eagle population on Naval Magazine Indian Island since 1994.
Today, the island provides 2700 acres of critical conservation habitat for 10 nesting eagle pairs. The Navy’s primary mission on Indian Island is to provide conventional ordnance support to U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard ships stationed in the Puget Sound and to all west-coast aircraft carriers. Because of this critical national defense mission, there is no active development on the island.
While the nation’s military provides protection for America and her allies, the DOD likewise maintains a strong conservation effort at all its locations. So much so that creatures of all kinds congregate on the vast holdings of our military installations. In fact, the DOD manages and protects 400 threatened and endangered species on 25 million acres of land across 420 military installations. The Defense Department now manages more species per acre than any other federal agency, including the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
This suits the Indian Island bald eagle population just fine, as the birds need room to roam and raise their young. The bald eagle is highly territorial and needs plenty of room to spread their wings and build their nests. An eagle’s nest can weigh up to 4,000 pounds, requiring a massive tree to support the weight. The eagle pairs select a sizable tree near the waterline, so they may fish and keep an eye on their nest at the same time. While the mature eagle has no natural enemies, fledgling eagles are a tasty treat to other birds like hawks, crows and ravens.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in conjunction with Indian Island environmental site manager Bill Kalina, have tagged the island’s eagles with satellite transmitters. As a result, fish and wildlife can track an eagle’s whereabouts. In order to tag an eagle, one must first capture an eagle, which is no small task.
Using herring as the bait, USFWS biologists will float the fish out in the bay. Normally, seagulls will first attack the bait, followed by the eagle chasing the seagulls away. When the eagle goes after the bait, the bird gets tangled up in the trap.
At this point, USFWS personnel will toss a big blanket over the eagle to subdue it and bring the bird into the boat for tagging. The eagle is released with a small satellite transmitter attached which allows the Service to keep track of the bird.
“People may think we name the eagles we monitor, but that’s not true,” Kalina stressed. Instead, the eagle’s nest is named after the place it is located. For example, there is the “North Beach pair,” and the “Boggy Spit pair,” and so on.
But now there is a real estate shortage for nesting eagles on Indian Island. The highly territorial bird doesn’t want other eagles roaming the neighborhood and will fight those that try to set-up housekeeping next door. As a result of these neighborhood brawls, the losing eagle ends up a little woozy, injured and at times unable to fly. Security personnel who come across an injured eagle, notify the environmental site manager, who then contacts the wildlife rehabilitation centers at Sequim or Bainbridge Island.
The wildlife rehab centers attempt to nurse injured eagles and other animals back to health. The primary goal is to return the injured back to the wild, if at all possible. If the animal cannot go back to the wild, they may be used for educational purposes at local schools and businesses.
Eagles can live as long as 50 years and mate for life. The eaglets are born in spring and are learning to fly from tree to tree by summer. By fall they are on their own and there is no coming back. In five years the plumage on the neck and head turns white and, at six years old, the eagle is ready to find a mate and build its own nest. The bald eagle takes seriously the term “until death do us part.” When an eagle’s mate dies, the “widow” goes salmon fishing, looking for a new mate. When the “widow” finds a new mate they take up residence in the old nest.
The bald eagle first gained federal protection in 1940, under what later became the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The nation’s eagle population fell into steep decline due primarily to widespread use of the pesticide DDT after World War II. DDT accumulated in eagles and caused them to lay eggs with weakened shells, decimating the eagle population in the lower 48 states. Concerns about the bald eagle resulted in its protection in 1967 under the predecessor to the current Endangered Species Act (ESA). The eagle was one of the original species protected by the ESA when it was enacted in 1973.
Fortunately, the bald eagle never needed the protection of the ESA in Alaska, where the population is estimated at between 50,000 and 70,000 birds. The bald eagle was delisted from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants in 2007.
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