A wary eye on eagle's rebound
Some worry that the bald eagle's comeback makes it very likely to lose its endangered status.
By THERESA BLACKWELL
Published March 13, 2006
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
A young eagle, left, and adult nest on property at the Hire-A-Pony Riding Academy in Oldsmar. Florida has more nesting bald eagles than any state except Alaska.
In more than 1,200 nests throughout Florida, bald eagle chicks are devouring fish and meat their parents have shredded.
It takes a lot to feed North America's fastest-growing baby bird.
And it's not just the chicks. Nationwide, the bald eagle population has grown from 417 pairs in the lower 48 states three decades ago to an estimated 7,066 pairs today.
That rebound prompted federal officials to announce recently that the bald eagle would be taken off the federal list of endangered and threatened species.
Federal officials trumpet the bald eagle as a success story, but some Florida environmentalists are wary. Florida has more nesting bald eagles than any state except Alaska.
But eagles need habitat, an increasingly scarce commodity in booming Tampa Bay.
"In an urbanized area, where there is so much development, I think they need all the protection they can get," said Joan Brigham, who has led the North Pinellas Audubon of Florida EagleWatchers for years. "I really worry about these eagles because I don't know where their young are going to go."
Brigham, 81, former chief naturalist for Lansing, Mich., and the EagleWatchers monitor nests throughout the October-May nesting season and report any problems they find.
Action to delist the bald eagle started in 1999, during the Clinton administration. The public has until May 17 to comment on the plan to take the bald eagle off the Endangered Species list. The action won't become official until after those comments are incorporated into a plan. That's expected to take at least a year and a half.
A key in the plan is bald eagle management guidelines.
Though voluntary, the guidelines are designed to ensure that eagles are not disturbed, which would violate the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Pinellas EagleWatchers say the continued recovery of the eagle will depend on preserving habitat, good management guidelines applied consistently, the resources to monitor whether eagles are being disturbed and enforcement of laws still in place to protect the eagle.
"My biggest concern is that it doesn't become open season for them," said Eaglewatcher Joe Zarolinski, 58, of Safety Harbor.
Zarolinski, who watches many North Pinellas nests, knows what it's like to watch eagles fall prey to overcrowding.
Last fall, a male bald eagle at a Dunedin nest he watches was killed in a fight over territory.
The EagleWatchers are not the only ones concerned about the status of the bald eagle. Since Florida announced its intention to remove the bald eagle from its list of imperiled species last month, Lynda White, the state Audubon EagleWatch coordinator, has been trying to reassure worried residents. She tells them the eagle has recovered and that's a good thing, and that they will still have some protection.
"But it's not just any bird," she said they persist, "It's the bald eagle. It's our bird."
America's bird has taken a beating lately in Florida, with eight hurricanes in two successive years. But the bald eagle can build the largest nest in North America from scratch in a week or so.
"The birds have rebounded beautifully from the hurricanes," White said. "They found a way to renest even if they lost their nest, their trees."
One goal of Audubon of Florida is to work with developers and local officials to encourage responsible growth that leaves a place for wildlife.
"Our biggest concern with delisting is that we have to have provisions for habitat protection," White said. "It doesn't do any good to protect the bird if you don't protect his habitat."
White said there are ways to develop around eagle's nests without disturbing them:
--Build as much as possible from May 16 to Sept. 30, when the eagles aren't nesting.
--Preserve a visual buffer between the nest and human activities by leaving as many trees and as much natural vegetation as possible. Eagles need more than the nest tree and a small area around it to survive. "They need perch trees to hunt from, to look for prey." she said. "They need roost trees, where they sleep."
--Keep the eagle's route to its food source as undisturbed as possible. She said eagles are creatures of habit and typically use one route to their food. "The flyway is something they need," she said.
Developers are starting to work with Audubon, White said, and monitoring construction to avoid disturbing nesting eagles will be important after delisting.
Tony Steffer of Tampa, 53, a raptor biologist specializing in eagles, works with state and federal agencies in bald eagle studies and as a consultant. He also works for private companies, developing management plans to avoid disturbing bald eagles and then monitoring the eagles to make sure they aren't disturbed.
"I think it's all in the details of the management plan," he said.
He hopes that whatever plans are adopted will take into account that individual eagles vary in the amount of activity they will tolerate near their nests. Each nesting site and pair of eagles is different and the plan should take that into account.
Steffer said Florida deserves some credit for cleaning up the water, where the eagles fish, and he doesn't think the eagles will fall into an unprotected void after delisting.
"Everyone seems to agree that the eagles are recovered," he said. "The onus will be on us to make sure it stays that way."
[Last modified March 13, 2006, 00:58:12]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]