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No longer in peril?

February 14, 2006 2:36 am

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A 28-year-old female bald eagle was set free in King George, after being treated for an injury. Eagle populations are rebounding. loeagle14.jpg

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By RUSTY DENNEN

ederal regulators say bald eagle numbers have recovered to the point that the majestic birds no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act.

But some scientists studying the birds say such a move, announced yesterday by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Wildlife Federation, is premature due to ongoing loss of habitat.

The Fish & Wildlife Service said it is moving ahead with a process begun in 1999 of dropping the bald eagle from the list of threatened species. The agency reopened a public comment period and proposed voluntary guidelines for landowners and others to continue to protect the birds under existing law.

A final decision is at least months away.

Delisting bald eagles was first proposed seven years ago and has been the subject of sometimes heated debate among scientists in favor of the process and those who argue that eagles need continuing protection. Passed by Congress in 1973, the Endangered Species Act provided the framework for the bald eagle's protection and recovery.

"Today we celebrate the remarkable recovery of the bald eagle. The return of our national symbol is a victory for wildlife, a victory for conservation and a victory for the Endangered Species Act," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

He noted that during the early 1970s, only 417 nesting pairs of eagles were left in the lower 48 states, due mainly to the effects of DDT, a potent and now-banned pesticide that caused eggshells to become thin and break during nesting.

There are now over 7,000 nesting pairs. Bald eagles were never endangered in Alaska; there are none in Hawaii.

Bryan Watts, a longtime eagle researcher and director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary, says that while their numbers have shot up, eagle habitat is being seriously threatened by sprawl.

Watts and the center do annual aerial surveys of eagle nests on the Chesapeake Bay and its Virginia tributaries. Surveys last spring turned up over 400 nesting pairs, and he expects to find even more when the flights resume in March. Historically, the bay area has supported about 600 nesting pairs.

New nests were found along the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers last year, but the birds and their progeny are rapidly using up the available avian real estate.

"Our concern is that over the next 50 years or so we'll be losing habitat at a fast rate," Watts said, adding, "The Rappahannock is really important bay wide."

The lower Rappahannock for years has had one of the largest and fastest-growing eagle populations in the state due to an abundance of habitat, nesting areas and fish. Though long stretches are mostly undeveloped farmland, houses have begun to encroach as the land is sold and turned into subdivisions.

A one-day survey last month conducted by Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Fish & Wildlife Service and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologists turned up 276 of the birds along a 35-mile stretch of the river north of Tappahannock. During a similar one-day survey in January 2005, the team spotted an unprecedented 395 eagles there.

Bill Portlock, a biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who coordinated the surveys, said delisting is premature.

"It wasn't unexpected. It's been talked about for some time," Portlock said, noting that the Endangered Species Act has provisions for habitat protection.

"The eagle does not have enough habitat for permanent protection," he said.

Bald eagles would continue to be protected under the regulatory predecessors of the Endangered Species Act--the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Recovery Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1929. Other more recent statutes protect wetlands and important wildlife habitat.

"We think any reasonable interpretation of [the 1940 act] will provide sufficient protection of breeding and habitat areas," said Timothy Male, wildlife scientist for Environmental Defense, a nonprofit environmental lobbying group based in New York, which has been pushing for the change.

"We hope that the announcement of a public comment period is the first step in a quick process in declaring the bald eagle recovered," Male said. Some other species have been dropped from the endangered list after their numbers rebounded, including the alligator and brown pelican. But as some are dropped, other species are being added.

Virginia and most other states have state laws protecting threatened and endangered species, generally following the federal guidelines.

For example, in Virginia, eagles have a dual listing as federally and state threatened. The state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have legal authority over threatened and endangered species and are responsible for their conservation.

Virginia has 63 threatened and endangered plant and animal species.

ON THE NET: Information on the delisting proposal, and landowner guidelines, is available on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Web site, fws.gov

To reach RUSTY DENNEN:540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com





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