Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bald Eagle Comeback Trail Leads to West Coast ; A Hefty Legal Settlement with a Polluter Will Pay for the Reintroduction of Eagles to California's Channel Islands

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bald Eagle Comeback Trail Leads to West Coast ; A Hefty Legal Settlement with a Polluter Will Pay for the Reintroduction of Eagles to California's Channel Islands

Article excerpt

Fifty years after they were decimated by pesticide contamination in one of their strongest marine footholds in North America, American bald eagles are poised for a momentous return.

National Park Service officials plan to reintroduce the birds to the northern Channel Islands off the coast of southern California this summer. As part of a five-year study, a dozen chicks annually will be released on the islands to determine whether they can survive there as they have in other parts of the country.

The program is being funded by a $145 million natural resources damage assessment against the Montrose Chemical Co., the Los Angeles pesticide manufacturer that dumped an estimated 1,800 tons of DDT into the ocean between 1947 and 1971. The settlement, which came after a 10-year legal battle, is the second largest of its kind in US history, after the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill settlement.

The devastating effects of DDT still linger because it does not break down in the environment and can remain in the tissues of fish and birds that have had either direct contact with it or have eaten contaminated prey.

In restoration projects on one of the Channel Islands in recent years, the remaining effects of DDT - still present on the ocean floor nearby - have thinned the shells of bald eagle eggs, causing chicks to die.

But the four islands to be studied - Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel - are further from the contamination site and officials hope that through extensive monitoring, the same fate can be avoided.

Saved from brink of extinction

"This is a very important project in the greater context of the American bald eagle comeback to North America," says Laura Valoppi, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Brought to the brink of extinction by development and the widespread use of DDT in controlling mosquitoes in coastal and wetland areas, the only eagle unique to North America was listed as endangered throughout the lower 48 states after the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. But the DDT ban, strict enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and methodical application of restoration projects in a half dozen areas have brought the eagle's numbers to levels at which federal protection isn't needed: Now about 5,000 breeding pairs nationwide.

"What makes this crucial is that this is one of the key coastal areas in the country where the bald eagle was once very strong but has not yet come back," says Ms. Valoppi. To see if that will happen, the six-agency project will release 12 eagles into the wild this year, possibly as early as May, and at least 12 each year for the next 3 to 5 years. The eagles would come from a breeding program at the San Francisco Zoo that provided chicks for other projects.

In a process known as "hacking" the birds are placed atop tall, wooden poles to simulate a nest environment. …

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