By ZEKE BARLOW
Scripps Howard News Service
June 18, 2007
It flapped its wings, spat guttural clucks from its hook-shaped beak and climbed onto a branch in the massive nest, spreading its 6-foot wings to make it look bigger than the 8-week-old eaglet it was.
But Jim C. Spickler was unfazed. He'd flown across the country, hiked through canyons on Santa Cruz Island and climbed this tree for this one moment, to grab this young bird so the scientists waiting below could study it.
Distracting the bird with a branch, Spickler used his free bare hand and snagged the leg of the bird just above its dagger-sharp talons.
Then the canopy biologist, who had performed this same ritual on bald eagles across the country, bagged the bird and lowered it to the ground, where a group of biologists waited with a tackle box full of syringes, calipers and scales.
This bird is part of a larger success story swooping over the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast and the entire country: Bald eagles are making a comeback.
More than three decades after the bald eagle became one of the first animals listed under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is likely to take the bird off the list later this month.
Removal of the national symbol from the list that highlights some of the country's greatest environmental problems has conservationists celebrating that, given the right tools, the system can work.
"By anyone's measure, this is a fantastic wildlife conservation story," Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Nicholas Throckmorton said. "With some hard work and the removal of DDT from the environment and the Endangered Species Act, it is possible to recover species."
Efforts to reintroduce the majestic birds onto the Channel Islands have played a huge part in re-establishing bald eagle populations across Southern California.
Bald eagles brought in from Alaska and Washington and placed on the islands later flew to the mainland, helping establish populations there. Seven chicks have hatched naturally on the islands in the past two years.
The bird that was the first naturally born bald eagle on the islands in more than 50 years has been tracked flying around Santa Barbara and another that was placed on Catalina Island has been seen flying near Palm Springs.
"We are starting down a long road, but we are seeing that it is possible that we are going to have the recovery of the historical populations of bald eagles," said Kate Faulkner, chief of resources management for Channel Islands National Park.
Still, the issue of DDT, which led to the eagle's decline around the country, is still a problem. Until the 1970s, the pesticide was dumped into the ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. DDT contaminated the marine life that the eagles ate, leading to eggs with shells so thin that parents would crush the eggs during incubation.
DDT is still found in the fat of sea lions that live on San Miguel Island, and scientists have no firm grasp on how long the poison will be in the food chain.
One egg that was laid in a ground nest on Santa Cruz Island this year broke and it is unclear if it was because of DDT contamination or other factors.
Eagles on the islands are far behind the rate of recovery in the lower 48 states, which have an estimated 10,000 breeding pairs. There were only four active nests on the northern and southern islands this year.
"We are a long way from being over the hump," said Dave Garcelon, president of the Institute for Wildlife Studies, who has been working to reintroduce the bald eagles on the Channel Islands for more than 20 years. He hopes that in the next few years, a dozen pairs of birds will be mating.
Beyond the DDT issue, another factor is that much of the prime bald eagle habitat around Southern California areas near the water where the birds like to hunt for fish are so developed that bald eagles are unlikely to return to those areas. Channel Islands National Park, with miles of undeveloped shoreline overlooking an ocean full of a seafood buffet, provides the perfect habitat.
Although most environmental groups support taking the bald eagle off the list, some fear that the birds could suffer without the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which makes it a crime to harm or kill either bird, will be the overriding law protecting them.
But the Endangered Species Act went one step further, protecting not only the birds but also the habitat in which they live.
Robin Silver, board chairman for the Center for Biological Diversity, said when that habitat protection goes, the eagles could lose.
"The issue is not whether you can kill an individual animal, but if you have widespread habitat destruction," he said. The precious land along lakes and oceans could be gobbled up by development and the eagles would no longer have a home, he added.
But that won't be a problem for the birds that call Channel Islands National Park home. The only thing likely to change in the park is that there will be more bald eagles in the future.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com