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Bald eagle conservation efforts are evident at Hawk Mountain

Published October 23. 2010 09:00AM

KEMPTON Each year, the Pennsylvania Game Commission monitors both existing and new bald eagle nests to measure nesting population trends and nesting success. Monitoring helps the agency to continue to follow the recovery of the bald eagle and allows biologists to know immediately if problems are occurring statewide.

PGC wildlife conservation officers protect nests and work with landowners to ensure the safety of bald eagles and their future success. When discovered, new nest sites are protected and reproduction is monitored, and the birds themselves receive federal protection under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

This safeguards the birds and their nests from disturbances and destruction, and such acts carry heavy fines and penalties. Meanwhile, the PGC management plan for bald eagles calls for more public education about eagles.

All of this is having a positive effect on reestablishment of bald eagles, and that message was delivered this week during a press conference at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary when raptor biologists announced that in the three years following the removal of the Bald Eagle from the Endangered Species List, the bird is now more common and widespread than ever in the history of raptor conservation.

"Not only are we seeing more Bald Eagles than our great-grandparents, but we're seeing twice as many," Hawk Mountain director of Conservation Science Keith Bildstein said. "It's possibly the greatest wildlife success story of our time and an unmitigated success for raptor conservation."

This news is impressive, considering that at one time the bald eagle's was one of the most heavily persecuted of all North American raptors. Early colonists feared the large soaring bird would carry off livestock, and eagles were systematically shot on sight.

These unreasonable fears inspired early American artists to depict eagles as evil and dangerous, drawing images of oversized birds that carried away children. Strengthened by this negative image, direct persecution from continued well into the early 20th Century.

Causing populations to drop even more was the addition of bounties, and between 1917 and 1953 more than 125,000 eagle bounties -- ranging from 50 cents to $2 -- were paid in Alaska alone. Somehow, our national symbol survived and finally received federal protection in 1940.

Then the bald eagle population faced another potentially more fierce form of decimation through the widespread misuse of the pesticide DDT which caused eggshell thinning and breakage in its eggs. With insufficient numbers of young to replenish populations, numbers plummeted again, and in 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ranked the species as endangered.

During the late 1960s and through the '70s, the bald eagle counts at Hawk Mountain plummeted to a few dozen birds per year. When the widespread use of DDT was banned in 1972, bald eagles were among the wildlife that made a recovery, and by the early 1980s the numbers of migrating past the sanctuary began to increase and continues today.

In 2002, the bald eagle count at Hawk Mountain exceeded 200 for the first time, and exceeded that number in six of the eight following years. With healthy populations restored, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Bald Eagle from the Endangered Species List, June 28, 2007.

This year, more than 300 have already soared by with more than 50 days remaining in the annual count at Hawk Mountain. Before the count ends, more than 350 bald eagles may be counted.

When the PGC announced its 2009 bald eagle nesting tally last June, there were at least 170 known nests in 48 counties, and by the end of the year, the number increased to 174 known nests. In 2008, agency biologists estimated Pennsylvania had 140 known nests in 47 counties, but the final nest count turned out to be 156.

As recently as 1983, there were just three eagle nests remaining in Pennsylvania, and that year the PGC began a seven-year bald eagle restoration program in which the agency sent employees to Saskatchewan to obtain eaglets from wilderness nests, with the Richard King Mellon Foundation of Pittsburgh and the federal Endangered Species Fund provided financial assistance for this effort.

In all, 88 bald eaglets from Canada were released from sites at Dauphin County's Haldeman Island and Pike County's Shohola Falls. Since 1983, Pennsylvania's eagle nests have produced more than 1,200 eaglets, and the population has increased by about 15 percent annually.

"Here at Hawk Mountain, we monitor the movements of two populations of bald eagles, one of which peaks in mid-September, and one whose numbers peak in November," Bildstein said. "In actuality the remarkable rebound in bald eagle numbers at Hawk Mountain and elsewhere in the United States represents a "double recovery," the first from direct persecution by shooting that occurred during the first half of the 20th Century and second from pesticide poisoning during the middle of the 20th Century, making the rebound something of a double success."

For more information about bald eagles in Pennsylvania, visit the PGC website at and the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary website at

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