Once Again, a Land of Eagles: Once Bordering on Extinction, Our National Symbol Is Making a Soaring Comeback in Forests Nationwide

By Enloe, Charles | American Forests, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview
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Once Again, a Land of Eagles: Once Bordering on Extinction, Our National Symbol Is Making a Soaring Comeback in Forests Nationwide


Enloe, Charles, American Forests


In the aftermath of September 11, national symbols took on a whole new meaning. Flags sprouted from car windows, strip malls, and politicians' lapels. Americans sang the national anthem and "God Bless America" with fervor, and an American bald eagle gilded into Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the World Series.

The national bird, majestically soaring across skies in the lower 48 states and in Alaska, is a fitting symbol for the resilience that has marked the American people over the last year. Once on the verge of extinction due to habitat loss, chemicals, and hunting, bald eagles were downgraded from endangered to threatened in 1995. And with numbers continuing to climb, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to delist the eagle altogether. Although sightings of the majestic bird are not common, more and more people are reporting seeing the 7-foot wingspan that symbolizes life, liberty, and the top of the food chain.

But despite their comeback, eagles face a multitude of threats. The biggest is development, which continues to destroy the tall trees they favor for their nests. Habitat restoration and preservation are key to continued success. AMERICAN FORESTS is pitching in with Global ReLeaf tree-planting projects in areas that eagles call home. Projects in Delaware, California, Kansas, Wyoming, and other spots across the nation will help ensure the eagle's continued prosperity.

A SOARING COMEBACK

AMERICAN FORESTS has planted 19,950 pines and oaks to reduce runoff, expand habitat and benefit balds at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge along the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The project was planted in partnership with Exxon Mobil.

"No matter how many I see, I still love to see bald eagles, and I see them everyday," says refuge manager Martin Kaehny. Eastern Neck has four active nests.

Further inland, Tom Miller, ranger for Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, says bald eagles are the prime attraction for the refuge's visitors.

"It's a very beautiful bird . . . [and] a fierce looking predator. I think people are drawn to that sort of thing." he says.

Marylander Meme Wells-Susnavick has watched eagles over the years at Blackwater and around her home. "To be out in the wild and hear the distinct call. . . it makes anyone stop and take notice," she says. When you talk about the American eagle and it being the American bird, I think it's a fascination for anybody. . . school-age child or adult."

When Bruce Freske sees 20 to 30 eagles winter at the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas, he is not only fascinated, he is impressed. The manager of the refuge, which contains mostly bottomland hardwood forests and is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says he has never seen such a large eagle population.

"They're at historic highs," Freske says. "There are probably more eagles here than there were at the turn of the century."

Freske hopes to see even more in the future. A recent Global ReLeaf project on the refuge planted 60,000 oaks, pecans, shagbark hickories, and sycamores on a former pasture. Now nearly five years old, the trees have done most of their growing underground, in the root structure. But down the road, those trees will grow into the kinds of large trees that eagles prefer when it's time to lay eggs, and Marais des Cygnes might just see summer-time nesting pairs as well.

Talk of an expanding eagle population would have seemed outrageous mere decades ago. The American Eagle Foundation estimates that bald eagle numbers in what would become the United States may once have been as high as 500,000. But populations began a fast dec1ine with the onset of European colonization. Hunting, pollution, and habitat destruction took their toil and eagle numbers continued to drop through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, an eagle sighting takes the breath away; not tat long ago it looked as if the actions of humans would take the eagles away.

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