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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Eagles Advance

Air Date: Week of

Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports on the successful recovery of bald eagle in Minnesota. The Federal government has proposed upgrading the eagle's status from endangered to threatened.


CURWOOD: Just in time for Independence Day, the Federal Government has announced that it plans to remove our national emblem, the bald eagle, from the Endangered Species List in most of the country. Officially, the great raptor will be upgraded from endangered to threatened throughout all the continental US, except for parts of the desert southwest. A quarter century ago, the bald eagle was nearly extinct, but today it's one of the success stories of the embattled Endangered Species Act. Minnesota has the largest population of eagles in the lower 48 states. As Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports, some biologists say the comeback of the eagle there and elsewhere is proof that the Endangered Species Act can work.

WINTER: In northern Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest, it's not unusual to see the haunched shape of an eagle roosting in a tree, or eagles circling over lakes and rivers looking for fish. On a foggy morning, wildlife biologist John Mathisen walks through the forest to a creek to visit an eagle nest. He points out a mass of sticks about 5 feet across high up in a pine tree.

(Footfalls in the forest.)

MATHISEN: There's an eagle next right there, in that white pine. You can see it about two-thirds of the way up.

WINTER: It's huge.

MATHISEN: Yep. They're, um - usually they're big enough so that you can go up there and lay down in them if you want to.

WINTER: Will it hold you?

MATHISEN: Sure. That's when we band them. That's what we do; we go up there and sit in it and band young ones.

WINTER: Mathisen has been collecting information about eagles in the Chippewa National Forest for 30 years. In his office, stored on his computer, he has information about every one of the 186 eagle nests in the forest.

(Keyboard typing; a chair squeaks.)

MATHISEN: So, that nest was found in 1986; in that year it had zero young.

WINTER: When Mathisen first started collecting data, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Today there are close to 4,000. Minnesota has more bald eagles than any other state besides Alaska, and Mathisen says there are so many eagles in the Chippewa National Forest that they're running out of good nest sites.

MATHISEN: So we see them at least attempting to build nests in places where we never would have thought to look for them before, like around buildings and along highways and so on.

WINTER: Bald eagles were listed as endangered in 1967 in most of the United States. Eagle habitat had been destroyed by logging and development. People killed eagles, mistakenly believing they harmed livestock. And the insecticide DDT accumulated in eagles' food, making the birds' eggs too fragile to hatch. Biologists say the main reason eagles are doing better now is that DDT was banned in the US in 1972. But they say human efforts to help eagles have been crucial, too.

(Woman: "You can go ahead and give him his fluids." Sound of utensils, clucking.)

WINTER: At the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, an injured eagle opens its curved beak and clucks in protest as a veterinarian looks at its bandaged leg. The Raptor Center treats injured birds and returns them to the wild. Such projects are expensive. Public and private organizations have spent millions of dollars on bald eagle recovery. Whether they are listed as threatened or endangered, eagles would still be protected by Federal law. But Raptor Center biologist Mark Martell says if the eagle's status is upgraded, money could be steered to species that need more help. And, he says, changing the listing makes a statement.

MARTELL: It's important to recognize that even though it was a lot of work and expensive, that we can turn around the plight of endangered species. That, when we set our minds to it, and protect animals, protect their habitat, that we can reverse what seems to be a pretty drastic trend, and that's towards extinction. And I think we have pulled the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction, and that needs to be recognized.

WINTER: Some conservationists support the proposal to change the eagle's status. But attorney Brian O'Neill, who represents the Defenders of Wildlife and other environmentalist groups, says he doesn't want to see money steered away from bald eagles. He says when eagle habitat is protected, other animals also benefit.

O'NEILL: When you eliminate a threat to eagles- by way of example, strychnine - you're eliminating a threat to kit foxes, grizzly bears, every kind of migratory bird that exists. So, I'm not so sure I want all of the money moved from eagles to obscure mussels.

WINTER: Supporters of the proposal say changing the eagle's status shouldn't be an excuse for ignoring it. Mark Martell from the Raptor Center says biologists must continue monitoring eagles and watching for future threats.

MARTELL That's very important. Habitat protection, a clean environment without a lot of toxic chemicals in it, people not shooting birds - all of those things have to continue to happen. We have to still be aware of the bird and be looking out for it. We can't just revert to old habits. Because all of our efforts will be for naught, then.

WINTER: The public will be invited to comment before the Agency makes a final decision. For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Winter in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.



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