Old News Archive

Bald Eagles removed from list of species protected under U.S. Endangered Species Act !

July 17, 2007 - TRC

On June 28, 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that the bald eagle will be removed from the federal list of Threatened Species throughout its range in the continental U.S. The species was first listed as an Endangered in 1967 across all southern states (below the 40th parallel). The northern tier of the continental U.S. was added in 1978 when bald eagles were designated as Endangered in 43 states (including Maine) and as Threatened in the remaining five (MI, MN, OR, WI, and WA).

The designation “Endangered” implies a species is in peril across its listed range, while the lesser category “Threatened” indicates jeopardy of becoming endangered. By 1978, only 791 nesting pairs of bald eagles could be documented in the lower 48 states. Historical estimates imply there had once been more than 100,000 nesting pairs in that region. While the species was never listed in Alaska or most of Canada, there was certainly a risk that our national symbol would vanish from most of its historic range.

Recovery plans were outlined for 5 regions of the U.S., and Maine was included in the Northern States Recovery Plan. Agencies, researchers, conservationists, and landowners began decades of programs to safeguard our national symbol. Most wildlife programs placed high priority on eagle population monitoring, habitat protection efforts, studies of environmental contaminants, and special population manipulations as warranted in specific areas to advance bald eagle recovery. Steady progress enabled “downlisting” of bald eagles (from Endangered to Threatened) across the lower 48 states in 1995.

By 2006, bald eagle numbers had rebounded to at least 9,789 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. USFWS proposed eagle reclassification, national habitat management guidelines, a definition of “disturb” under the Bald Eagle – Golden Eagle Protection Act, future strategies for monitoring the species, and a one-year public comment period. The recent announcement of formal “delisting” (removal of the Threatened Species designation) under federal law becomes one of the premier success stories of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Bald eagles are still a rarity in many states, and some will continue special protection of the species under state law. In the 2006 tabulation of breeding populations in the lower 48 states
(see http://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle/population/be_prsmap_wo2006.pdf),
more than 70% reside in only 10 states. Maine ranked 8th in abundance of breeding eagles amongst the lower 48 states that year and is the stronghold for the species in the northeastern U.S. In 2006, Maine’s 414 nesting pairs represented 74% of all eagles residing in New England – New York.

Strategies for bald eagle recovery in Maine:
Even before the species was formally listed as Endangered in Maine, work had begun. In 1962, the National Audubon Society initiated bad eagle monitoring in Maine and five other populations. Although the survey was limited in scope, annual statistics dropped to lows of 21 nesting pairs and only 4 eaglets fledged in the mid-1960s. USFWS began a program to solicit voluntary protection of nesting habitats in 1972. Early contaminant studies found unprecedented levels of DDE and PCBs in eagle eggs from Maine. The first of six graduate research projects at the University of Maine focused on the state’s eagles began in 1976. Transplants of eggs (1974-76) and eaglets (1977-80) helped bolster segments of the population that nearly vanished.

MDIFW had to acquire annual grants and contract much of the early eagle work in the state. The creation of the Maine Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Program in 1984 made direct participation possible with a charitable donation (the “Chickadee Check-off”) on state income tax forms to generate the first state funds. USFWS continued to fund 90% of operational costs of eagle recovery in Maine for 30 years because of its strategic importance to the Northeast. Bald eagle assessments outlined management goals and strategies in 1975, 1980, 1986, and 2004. Annual monitoring of the breeding population, voluntary and regulatory efforts to protect nesting habitat, and public outreach have become constant missions. An array of researchers and land conservation partners now participate in special facets of the program in Maine.

In 1989, MDIFW established formal criteria for bald eagle recovery and details of new “Essential Habitat” rules (see below) in a management system. At present, only one outstanding hurdle remains before state reclassification of eagles. Biological parameters for delisting include viable numbers, self-sustaining levels of reproduction, and favorable population trends. A habitat “safety net” and federal delisting are additional criteria for eagle recovery in Maine. Federal delisting is considered a prerequisite because Maine is a somewhat isolated eagle population. There were no nesting eagles for many years in adjacent areas of New England or southern Quebec, and New Brunswick was the only Canadian province to list bald eagles as Endangered.

Safeguards for habitat were devised as a prudent measure to assure that a subset of broadly distributed nesting areas would remain suitable (via conservation ownership, suitable easements, or long-term cooperative agreements with landowners) regardless of special regulations. Maine has acquired special funds under the Landowner Incentive Program to implement other strategies for building the habitat safety net. When all of the criteria below are met fully, MDIFW will recommend bald eagle delisting under the Maine Endangered Species Act: a change requiring action by the state legislature … possibly in the next session.

Criteria for delisting bald eagles under the Maine Endangered Species Act:

* Breeding population > 150 nesting pairs for 3 consecutive years [achieved in 1996]
* Annual eaglet production > 150 fledglings for 3 consecutive years [achieved in 1999]
* No annual population declines > 5% for 3 consecutive years [achieved in 2000]
* Federal delisting of bald eagles [achieved 2007]
* Secure at least 50 eagle nesting areas via conservation ownership or suitable easements [achieved 2004]
* Protect an additional 100 eagle nesting areas via conservation ownership, suitable easements, and long-term agreements with private landowners [pending]

Essential Habitat rules continue until state delisting:
Until the status of Threatened Species for bald eagles under state law is removed by the legislature, there are no changes to special protection of eagle nests as Essential Habitat. Projects within mapped areas that are permitted by, licensed by, funded by, or carried out by state or municipal government must be reviewed by MDIFW. The rules do not prohibit land use changes but assures that any necessary adjustments are in place to meet the special needs of nesting eagles. There are currently 559 mapped Essential Habitats for bald eagles. Locations depicting these consultation zones can be viewed in town offices or on the Internet at http://megisims.state.me.us/website/mdifweh/viewer.htm

The Essential Habitat provision arose as a 1988 amendment to Maine’s Endangered Species Act enabling special protection of areas currently or historically critical to species recovery. It was a remedy for subjective, inconsistent reviews of to land use changes and other new projects proposed near eagle nests when MDIFW had no formal role in the decision. First implemented in 1990, these rules outline standard criteria for judging each proposal based on local circumstances rather than hard-and-fast prohibitions. All but two of more than 250 Essential Habitat reviews were approved after safeguards for nesting eagles from project timing, buffers, and location became part of municipal and state permits. The account below “Successful management in eastern Maine” elaborates on this and other successful partnerships with landowners and conservation partners Downeast to benefit eagles.

2007 nesting survey findings:

In 2007, the preliminary survey total is 435 nesting pairs but that number is expected to rise slightly as biologists react to reports of new nests and conduct final aerial survey monitoring. More than 40 survey flights have been conducted by MDIFW biologists and contractors to monitor traditional nests, search for new nests, and evaluate eagle reproduction. Twenty-nine new eagle nesting pairs have been located in 2007. Also, 42 new, alternate nest locations for established pairs were documented.

Expanding numbers of nesting eagles are evident statewide, but Maine’s eagle stronghold is still “Downeast.” Washington, Hancock, and Penobscot Counties still support 57% of the statewide population. The region boasts the highest density of nesting eagles between population centers in the Chesapeake Bay (Maryland and Virginia) and Cape Breton Island (Nova Scotia). New eagle pairs have been found this year from Dayton (York County) north to Van Buren (Aroostook County), from Bethel (Oxford County) east to Lubec (Washington County), and offshore in Monhegan (Lincoln County) to upper stretches of the Saint John River (Aroostook County): literally, the length and breadth of Maine! A breakdown of the statewide monitoring effort and eagle numbers by county documented thus far in 2007 appears below.

The net increase of only 15 pairs (over the 2006 total of 414 nesting pairs) is deceiving because of limits on survey budgets and very challenging spring weather patterns. A major snowstorm April 5 followed by the torrential rain and wind of an April 16 Nor’easter wreaked havoc with eagle nesting this year. Most Maine eagles have laid eggs by the end of March. Thus prolonged, adverse weather can readily cause amplified levels of nest loss, exposure of eggs to freezing, etc.

In turn, biologists have more difficulty locating resident eagles after nest failures so we believe that (more than most years) we are undercounting the eagle population in 2007. A national monitoring protocol was first tested in Maine during 2004, and random plots were surveyed to compare against our normal monitoring procedures and found that we effectively had found 82% of actual numbers.

Final levels of nest success and overall productivity have not yet been evaluated this year. A sample of 252 nests with known outcomes has yielded only 149 eaglets. This level of productivity (0.6 fledglings per occupied nest) is considerably below typical rates in Maine. Fortunately, the population is well-buffered against such setbacks now and not nearly as vulnerable to random influences (such as April storms) as it was for the many years when low numbers presented an inherent risk to the eagle’s future. A look back at the trends in numbers of nesting pairs and annual eaglet production over the years in Maine reveal the degree of jeopardy that loomed over Maine eagles (please see chart below).

Microsoft Graph ChartLessons from eagle recovery and future strategies:
Most agree that federal delisting of bald eagles is appropriate and that removal of the Threatened designation under Maine’s Endangered Species Act is eminent. For 30 years, MDIFW focused toward a goal to re-establish a self-sustaining population of bald eagles across Maine. Many different challenges and were addressed via adaptive management to assure they did not limit eagle recovery. We are confident that the full compliment of state delisting criteria achieves that outcome.

However, the bald eagle still has special needs. We have no evidence that eagles can increase or even sustain their numbers without attention to shoreline habitats they require. Bald eagles, a top-level predator, are very sensitive barometers of environmental quality. Mortality factors that shorten eagle longevity can create population declines. As before, risks will be evaluated and remedies formulated … this time, before jeopardy levels escalate. Biologists would much rather focus on wildlife before facing the perils implied by Endangered and Threatened classifications. Recovery of species (if possible at all) inevitably requires decades of special efforts.

Three years ago, MDIFW Advisory Council adopted a recommendation from a public working group to target an eagle population of 600 nesting pairs in Maine by the year 2019. This objective and one to double the habitat safety net are reasonable and effective safeguards to eagle recovery. The population level translates to modest gains less than half the 8% annual growth rate achieved during peak survey monitoring and habitat protection efforts ongoing since 1990. These functions will not end but be less frequent and rely on sampling so that MDIFW can use limited budgets and staff more for other species of conservation concern. Biologists will sample relative abundance, distribution, reproduction, and nest occupancy rates of the eagle population over time to assure that setbacks do not arise. Maine will be a key state in a national monitoring protocol to conduct dual-frame sampling (like the U.S. Census Bureau) every 5 years through the year 2028.

The relationship of these indices with land conservation, private stewardship, and “unprotected” eagle habitats will be examined. Thirty years ago, there were only two eagle nesting areas on conservation land. Now there are 89 eagle pairs on lands secured in perpetuity by resource agencies and private conservation partners. The Nature Conservancy, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Forest Society of Maine, New England Forestry Foundation, and the array of local chapters of the Maine Land Trust Network have negotiated many outstanding purchases or conservation easements to benefit bald eagles and our natural resource legacy for future generations in Maine. Efforts will now focus on 207 partly protected eagle habitats to assure others will remain functional landscapes in the future. The Bald Eagle – Golden Eagle Protection Act, prohibits direct harm to eagles and their nests. National habitat management guidelines were adopted to promote compliance with this federal law.

Maine’s intricate coastline and numerous inland waters may provide physical habitat for 700 - 1,000 nesting pairs. This number (= carrying capacity) could rise sharply if runs of migratory fish populations (alewives, shad, eels, etc.) improve. Current efforts to remove legal blocks to alewife passage in the Saint Croix River and proposal to remove 2 dams and bypass another with inadequate fishways in the lower Penobscot River could greatly improve food resources for eagles in much of the state. MDIFW and research partners now have clear baselines on levels of mercury and PCB residues in the eagle population. Neither of these contaminant groups has declined significantly over the last 20 years, unlike the phenomenon with DDE.

The accomplishments in bald eagle recovery programs are indeed remarkable and the most desirable end product in Endangered Species conservation, but there are no quick fixes or guarantees of success. Maine citizens, visitors to the state, and our data all agree that the steady increases in numbers and distribution of Maine’s bald eagles have greatly boosted public viewing opportunities to see and enjoy our national symbol. Please remember what was almost lost ! Maine’s natural resources are invaluable.

You can help in many ways. Contributions to Maine’s Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Fund remain the only source of state funds for these programs. Direct contributions, gifts via the Chickadee Check-off on state income tax forms, or partial proceeds from purchase of a Conservation Plate for vehicles registered in Maine all are deposited in this dedicated account and provide the only state revenue to provide match money for other grants and partnerships. Your help and support are encouraged. This work is currently supported by federal State Wildlife Grants, Landowner Incentive Program funds, and state revenues from the Conservation Plate and Chickadee Check-off funds.

-Brad Allen and Charlie Todd, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

Peregrine Falcon

Gone for 25 years

The peregrine is another species that has benefited greatly from federal / state partnerships in endangered species conservation. Formerly a breeding resident of coastal headlands and cliffs in mountainous regions, the species was extirpated from Maine and the entire eastern U.S. by the early 1960s. Like bald eagles and many other birds of prey, peregrines were the victims of DDE, a persistent by-product of the insecticide DDT. Decreased reproductive rates among peregrines persisted for decades, and worldwide threats of extinction coincided with eggshell thinning caused by this contaminant.

More than 35 nations have since conducted active programs to restore peregrine falcons. A total of 144 young peregrines produced in captive-breeding programs were successfully released at 8 different locations in Maine during the period 1984 through 1997. The Peregrine Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Acadia National Park, and MDIFW jointly conducted this venture using methods based upon traditional falconry techniques. Some peregrines reintroduced in Maine were encountered as breeding birds in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York. Others have been documented as migrant visitors to points as far away as Cuba and Venezuela !

Despite these dramatic movements, others have returned to breed in Maine. A peregrine from the 1984 release in Baxter State Park found its way back to the same Penobscot County cliff in 1985 and reappeared in 1986 as the first adult peregrine searching for a home (and a mate) in Maine. The first pair of peregrines to reside in Maine for more than 25 years chose a historic eyrie, Mount Kineo in Piscataquis County, as their new home in 1987. In 1988, a second pair appeared at “The Precipice,” the Acadia National Park cliff last inhabited by peregrines before their disappearance in the 1960s. Also that year, an Oxford County cliff became the first site of successful breeding by reestablished peregrines. Small gains occurred during 1989 - 2001, but numbers of nesting peregrines did not change appreciably: 5 - 8 eyries were inhabited each year. Biologists were pleased to again have peregrines among the state’s resident wildlife, but they were perplexed by the lack of recovery progress. Periodic setbacks are a common hazard in endangered species restorations.

There is no substitute for diligence over time in these endeavors. Major improvements finally occurred in 2002. The statewide breeding count doubled in a single year. Peregrines inhabited 15 eyries in Maine during 2002. Surveys concluded in 2006 reveal the count has risen slightly to 17 nesting pairs. Monitoring is still underway in 2007, but two major April storms may have caused widespread nest failures.

A closer look reveals considerable instability in the small, recovering population. Peregrines have inhabited a total of 26 different eyries during the last 6 years. Nine vacancies may reflect the loss of an individual adult: an inherent risk from small numbers and special needs typical of endangered species such as the peregrine. Most peregrines breeding in Maine inhabit southern Oxford County near the state’s western border. New peregrine eyries were found during 2007 in Cumberland County and Knox County: the first documentation of peregrine nesting in either in at least 50 years !

A record high of 26 young peregrines fledged from ten eyries in 2002. Only 17 young peregrines were tallied in 2004 and 2005, but twenty-two fledged last year. Slight declines help validate the need for annual monitoring and site management in Maine. MDIFW and cooperating agencies manage several settings to mitigate potential recreational disturbances. There is no evidence yet of residual contaminant impacts on Maine’s re-established peregrines but the population needs careful attention to monitor this possibility or other related problems if the trend continues.

Many land managers have championed stewardship of peregrines nesting on their property: White Mountain National Forest, Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, Seven Islands Land Co., Hancock Timberlands, and especially Acadia National Park. Biologists can advise rock climbers where breeding peregrines are present. Hikers and rock climbers have assisted by reported peregrine sightings during their recreational pursuits. Peregrines have proven quite adaptable, and managers have successfully maintained peregrines in some high profile settings with only modest precautions.

Maine and most eastern states are now dependent mostly on state budgets for annual peregrine monitoring and management. Major increases of peregrines in the western U.S. are largely responsible for federal delisting of peregrines in 1999, but they are still recognized as Endangered Species under state jurisdictions in Maine and throughout the eastern U.S. For those who have witnessed the spectacular flight of a peregrine (whether in Baxter State Park or downtown Lewiston), it is an event not readily forgotten. Centuries of mankind’s fascination with the peregrine as the fastest-flying bird and an accomplished predator continue on !

-Charlie Todd, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.