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Preserving bald eagles – a plan still ascending

The rescue plan worked.

Just a single pair of American bald eagles could be spotted in New York State in the early 1970s. But after years of nurturing 175 eagles brought in from Alaska in the 1980s and protecting the nests of others born here, state environmental workers last year counted 254 pairs of bald eagles in 331 nesting territories across the state.

So now comes the management plan.

“We definitely have room to grow our population,” said Blanche E. Town, a wildlife technician for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “We do have to make sure we maintain 200 pairs at a minimum.”

Agreeing on ways to do that is the next step in one of the state’s biggest environmental success stories of the last quarter-century.

Among the measures included in the state’s draft plan:

• Work with landowners to set up buffer areas around nests to limit disturbances.

• Identify alternatives to lead ammunition because bullets in deer and other animals can kill bald eagles if they eat the animals’ remains.

• Continue public education and outreach programs so people don’t harm eagles.

• Promptly remove animal carcasses from roads to decrease chances of collisions between cars and bald eagles feeding on carcasses.

• Provide guidance on the siting of wind turbines, high-voltage lines and communications towers.

• Discourage intentional feeding of bald eagles.

• Implement a program for handling distressed bald eagles.

• Recruit volunteers to monitor nests of bald eagles.

Public comments on the department’s Bald Eagle Conservation Plan are being taken through April 10.

Then the department could revise the plan before it’s formally adopted, which is expected sometime in the next three months or so.

“We have made a lot of progress in cleaning up the Great Lakes in the past 30 years, and the recovery of bald eagles in New York State shows that,” said Tom Kerr, a naturalist for the Buffalo Audubon Society. “Although this is a big success story, we can’t look at the increase in eagle populations and say, ‘Mission accomplished.’ We have to continue our focus on clean water and habitat preservation.”

Buffer zones planned

Sightings of bald eagles across Western New York started becoming more common over the last decade as they nested on the Grand Island bridges, in treetops on Strawberry and Navy islands, along the shorelines of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and in several spots across the Southern Tier.

Winter is the best time to spot one. That’s because the bald eagle population doubles or triples with birds arriving from far Northern Ontario and Quebec to spend the winter here.

Kerr said that the eagle pair nesting on Strawberry Island are year-round residents and that there are a few others around, including at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge east of the area and on Navy Island, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River upstream of Niagara Falls.

“As their populations increase, so will their encounters with people, and those won’t always be positive,” Kerr said. “Eagles don’t always choose convenient, out-of-the-way places like Strawberry Island to build their nests. There are bound to be cases where an eagle nest is interfering with development, and there are sure to be people who don’t understand why we give them the protection that we do.”

And that is the reason for the management plan.

Buffer areas around bald eagles’ nests would be handled “on a case-by-case basis,” according to the draft plan, depending upon how people are affecting the birds.

For instance, construction of buildings and roads could be prohibited within one-quarter mile of an eagle’s nest. In areas where there is a “visual buffer,” the plan suggests that construction could take place about an eighth of a mile closer to the nest.

The plan also calls for at least a 330-foot buffer zone for forestry and recreational activities.

“Logging has frequently been reported as a cause of abandonment or loss of nesting sites,” according to the draft plan.

Impact on nesting

“Human activity can negatively affect bald eagle nesting success and cause wintering eagles to expend valuable energy unnecessarily, or to abandon foraging, when startled by recreationists approaching too closely,” according to the draft plan.

That’s why DEC officials recommended keeping personal watercraft, motorboats, motor vehicles and all-terrain vehicles at least 330 feet away and, under some circumstances, up to 660 feet from an eagle nest. Officials suggested posting signs prohibiting people from approaching nests or disturbing wintering eagles.

The DEC also recommended a quarter-mile and 1,500-foot-high buffer zones for helicopters or other aircraft, with a few exceptions.

Eagles, like most predatory wildlife, prefer a good meal. Often that means scavenging a dead deer on the roadside.

The draft DEC plan recommended the “prompt removal of deer and other large animal carcasses” from roads near nests to protect the birds from traffic.

Similar plans are already in place in other parts of the country, including Montana, for the coveted golden eagle, said David E. Olerud, founder of the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines, Alaska.

“Every morning, there’s a pickup and they get the carcasses off the road,” Olerud said. “They don’t care when a deer gets run over, but they do care when an eagle gets hit.”

Monitoring the population

Keeping tabs on the eagle population is another of the plan’s top goals.

The DEC wants the public to take an active role in reporting new bald eagle nests to the agency using an online reporting system. Outreach programs would recruit volunteers to help monitor nests.

Through the monitoring, the state could detect declines in breeding pairs of 20 percent, although the 2014 DEC survey showed the bald eagle raising “about 10 percent more young eagles than the year before.”

At first, bald eagles showed up more in the Adirondacks, the St. Lawrence River area and along Lakes Erie and Ontario. But DEC officials have found that even this is changing.

Higher concentrations are now found in the southeastern part of the state – in the Hudson and Delaware river valleys and in the watershed areas of New York City – as well as in the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in Central New York, Town said.

Bald eagles fledged in New York State don’t necessarily stick around. Some bald eagles fledged in New York have been documented nesting as adults in nine other states, as well as in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, according to the DEC.

“By looking at the bald eagle and watching its performance,” Olerud said, “it’s our report card” for the environment.