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If Eagles are to Keep Soaring, We Must Keep Vigil

February 03, 2009 - After all the dismal economic news of the past few months, are you ready for some good news? Some straightforward, unequivocal, no-strings-attached cheerful stuff?

If you are, then go outside, hike or drive to the nearest big lake or river and look along the shoreline. There are at least 477 chances you'll see a pair of bald eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, in a mature tree along the water's edge, or swooping down over open water in search of a meal.

That's because Maine is home to 477 nesting pairs of bald eagles -- up from 30-60 pairs in the late 1970s.

Maine was once home to thousands of bald eagles. After being driven to the edge of extinction in this state by hunters and toxic contamination, Maine's bald eagles are back in a big way.

For many of us, a bald eagle sighting -- while still thrilling -- is a regular occurrence as we drive to work or do our errands. Out of the corner of your eye, a flash of white, the stately and unhurried flapping of wings, smaller birds screeching and scattering -- there's an eagle.

Such a casual encounter with our national bird would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, when the bird was protected by federal law under the Endangered Species Act.

At that time, Maine's tiny population of eagles in Washington County was the largest number of the birds in any northeastern state between the Chesapeake and Canada. With money and expertise from the feds, Maine's skilled biologists worked to restore the state's eagle numbers largely by conserving the forested landscape that the birds use for their nests.

The strategy -- which entailed both outright purchases of eagle habitat as well as voluntary measures taken by landowners to protect such habitat on private lands -- has worked, and not only in Maine. Throughout the country, eagle populations have soared under the Endangered Species Act's protections.

They've soared so high that the bird has been taken off the federal Endangered Species List and the Maine Legislature is poised to follow suit by taking it off the state's list.

The state's biologists who have worked on eagle recovery support the delisting move. So do conservation groups like Maine Audubon. And no one can argue with the numbers. The Endangered Species Act -- both state and federal -- did its job, as did the biologists, conservationists and land-owners whose hard work combined to produce this impressive recovery.

Yet the state should not simply pat itself on the back and walk away from the eagle.

Eagle populations are high, but that doesn't mean that all threats to the bird have been removed. Recent studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as Maine's own Biodiversity Research Institute, indicate that while eagle populations have rebounded from their nadir, that recovery may have been slowed -- and may be further slowed -- by the birds' exposure to toxic contaminants.

Both traditional toxic contaminants like mercury and PCBs and new ones like flame retardants and PFCs -- the chemicals in non-stick coatings -- are showing up in our environment and making their way into the species that live there, including eagles.

While these substances may not be killing the birds, the presence of mercury in eagles, for example, has been correlated with a diminished number of chicks fledging, or leaving their nests.

So as Maine lawmakers consider the eagle's appropriate de-listing, they also should require that the future include significant monitoring of the birds across the state. That kind of year-after-year data gathering is not nearly as romantic a job as helping a species recover, but, in the end, it may be nearly as crucial for the birds' long-term survival.

Tuesday February 3rd, 2009

Kennebec Journal editorial