With more than 7600 breeding pairs in the continental United States alone, the American Bald Eagle has made a remarkable comeback. A new proposal to remove the bird from the Endangered Species list is expected soon. But that means removing a powerful safety net that can affect future research, monitoring and habitat protection. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sally Eisele reports:
With more than 7600 breeding pairs in the continental United States alone, the
American Bald Eagle has made a remarkable comeback. A new proposal to remove the
bird from the Endangered Species list is expected soon. But that means removing a
powerful safety net that can affect future research, monitoring and habitat protection.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sally Eisele reports:
In the history of the Endangered Species Act, only a dozen or so of the more than 1200
plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered have actually recovered. The eagle
may be the latest to join that little group.
(Young birder: “I see a big birdie…”)
This is a pretty unlikely spot for an eagle — a manmade wetland by a landfill in a busy
airport flight path on the outskirts of Detroit. But state wildlife biologist Joe Robison
shows this young visitor the bulky nest across the marsh where two adult birds are
teaching their gangly fledglings to fly.
“Something just landed in the tree out there. Oh. That’s the other juvenile. This is the
first time I’ve seen them flying this year. They look like they’re flying good though.”
These birds are among more than 400 pairs in Michigan monitored by state and federal
wildlife officials. The eagles are banded, the nests are watched and when a bird dies it
ends up in the freezer of wildlife pathologist Tom Cooley.
(sound of Cooley opening the freezer)
“Lots and lots of ’em. You can see that one was a road kill along I-75…”
Right now, Cooley’s freezer is brim full of dead birds stacked like frozen Thanksgiving
turkeys in plastic bags. Road kill has become the leading cause of death among eagles
he examines, but Cooley says they still investigate suspicious looking deaths for the
heavy metals and pesticides—like DDT—which once caused the eagles’ demise.
“Birds that kind of send up a red flag to us are adult birds that are in poor condition and
you don’t see a reason why they could be in poor condition. Those are the ones that we
especially look at for pesticide analysis because there are still the organochlorines out
there. The DDTs are still picked up by eagles or still contained in eagles. Those
pesticides can cause real problems for them and actually kill them.”
Cooley sends tissue samples to another state lab for analysis. But the testing is
expensive. And with the eagle on the way to recovery, it’s not as urgent. Right now, he
says all the samples he sends are being archived—shelved basically. That means the
testing won’t be done until the money is available.
“I never like archiving anything if I can help it. You’re probably not missing anything
but that kind of data is always nice to have if you can get it right away and look at it right
The question is, if it’s hard to get funding for monitoring and testing now—while the bird
is still on the Endangered Species List—what happens when it’s taken off the list? The
reality, say state and federal wildlife experts, is that budget priorities change as a species
recovers. Ray Rustem heads Michigan’s non-game wildlife program.
“There’s not enough money for every species. So you try to take a species to a level
where you feel comfortable with and you take money and apply it to another species to
try to recover.”
The federal Endangered Species Act requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor
what it terms a delisted species for five years. After that, responsibility largely shifts to
the states. That concerns groups like the National Wildlife Federation. Attorney John
Kostyak questions whether states can really afford to protect fragile species and their
habitat over the long term.
“That’s going to be an issue with any delisting. A tough question that we’re going to
always be asking is: all right assume you go forward with delisting—how are you going
to be sure the species doesn’t turn right around and go back toward extinction again?”
With some species, that means habitat management. With others, like the recovering
gray wolf, it means public education—teaching people not to kill them. With the eagle, it
means ensuring that the birds are not threatened by the pesticides, heavy metals and
newer chemicals that contaminate the fish the eagles eat. Because of the bird’s
importance as an indicator species, Fish and Wildlife biologists are hopeful banding and
testing programs will continue after delisting. But it will likely mean finding new ways
to pay for them.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sally Eisele.