The nation’s symbol, which was ailing for decades because of the wide use of the pesticide DDT, has finally been given a clean bill of health in Washington.
Members of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission have removed the bald eagle from the protected list, acknowledging its long comeback from threatened extinction.
“It’s a real success story,” said the agency’s spokeswoman Hannah Anderson.
Eagles had been listed most recently as a sensitive species, meaning they needed to be watched to make sure their numbers continued to grow.
And grow they have.
A recent state study found eagle numbers are strong throughout Washington, which has some 1,334 nesting sites, although not all are active.
“They’re doing really well,” Anderson said.
Eagles were first listed as endangered nationally in 1978. That’s when federal officials acknowledged that eagle numbers had crashed because they were ingesting large amounts of the pesticide collected in the fat of their prey. The DDT made their eggs thin and fragile, and the eagles weren’t reproducing well.
Things were a little better in Washington than in other parts of the country. Here, the population was listed just as threatened, not endangered. In 1981, the state had 10 percent of the eagle population in the lower 48 states.
The federal government no longer lists eagles as endangered or threatened, but they are still a protected species under several federal laws.
Ruth Milner, a regional biologist for fish and wildlife, said it’s still illegal to harm eagles or cut down trees with nests. But she said the birds have made a strong comeback.
Milner, whose territory covers Snohomish, Island, Skagit and San Juan counties, said populations are particularly strong in northwestern Washington because eagles like Puget Sound and the many nearby lakes and salmon-bearing rivers.
“They like big trees next to water,” Milner said.
In the marine waters off Snohomish, Island, Skagit, San Juan and Whatcom counties, they are really coming back in big numbers, Milner added, noting, “There are lots of fish and waterfowl for them to eat.”
The state’s list of eagle territories (nesting sites) notes 86 in Snohomish County, 110 in Island County, 108 in Skagit County and 87 in Whatcom County.
Eagles instinctively return to the same nest or nesting territory each year. A pair might choose to build a new nest, however, if a previous nest failed to fledge eaglets. Nests can weigh 2,000 pounds, Milner said.
She said that removing DDT from the environment was key for the eagle’s recovery. Eagles were easier to help rebound because the solution to their survival problems was clear.
“In some ways, it was an easy success story,” Milner said. “We identified their problem and removed it from the environment.”
In addition to banning DDT, officials also worked hard to protect eagle habitat. The state made farmers, developers and all other property owners create plans to protect new and existing eagle nests.
And it still keeps records of nest sites, although it doesn’t help property owners make eagle nest plans anymore.
In the state study that led to the bird’s removal from the list of sensitive species, the eagle population was described as robust and still growing. “…the species will continue to be an important and thriving part of our state’s natural diversity for the foreseeable future,” according to the report.
It expects eagle numbers to continue to grow for the next 10 to 20 years until the population in North America stabilizes at 228,000 birds.
Statewide, the number of eagles has increased by about 28 per year since 2005, when eagles were first listed as sensitive.
There are nearly 200 bald eagle nesting territories in Snohomish and Island counties.
See Washington’s eagles
Eagles migrate south from Alaska and Canada in the winter. January and February are good months to spot them in Washington, gathering along area rivers.
Celebrate the return of the bald eagle with these eagle-themed festivities:
The Skagit Eagle Festival is a month-long celebration held during eagle-watching season in nearby Skagit County. Events and activities take place in Concrete, Rockport and Marblemount each weekend in January. Visit concrete-wa.com/skagit-eagle-festival-2018 for more information.
The Arlington-Stillaguamish Eagle Festival is Feb. 2 and 3 along Olympic Avenue. The 11th annual festival includes animal talks, bird walks, river rafting, chainsaw carving, live music and an art show. For more information, including an event schedule and maps, visit arlingtonwa.gov/eaglefest.