BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - After 15 years of checking bald eagle nests from small planes, there are now an estimated 100 nesting pairs, up from 77 the previous year and 10 times the state's recovery goal under the Endangered Species Act. With the nest-to-nest status check by plane ending last year, the state now will start watching over a few dozen nests to monitor the eagles' health.
"It's getting to be a little costly for airplane time," said Keith Hudson, the state biologist chiefly responsible for tracking the eagle's progress in Alabama.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to remove the bird from the Endangered Species List in June, saying the eagle only needs monitoring now that it has successfully repopulated the lower 48 states. The population increased from 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to more than 8,500.
"Although we've had regulatory issues in getting the final rules resolved, the bald eagle itself has performed splendidly and has increased in population," Jody Millar, Fish and Wildlife's bald eagle recovery coordinator, told The Birmingham News in a story Sunday.
Removal from the list has partly been delayed by debate over whether other laws protecting the bird would be more burdensome for landowners than the Endangered Species Act.
Bald eagles will continue to be protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, two laws older than the Endangered Species Act that prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming bald eagles, their nests or eggs.
The bald eagle, one of the nation's most popular birds, draws watchers by the dozen to Lake Guntersville, where the birders wait in the cold at dawn or dusk to see an eagle fly or glide to its nest.
"People come from all over wanting to see those eagles," said Mark Jackson, chief ranger at Lake Guntersville State Park. "Even during the week they come in, four or five a day."
The traditional weekend-long programs have not been held while the park was under renovation the past two years. But about 200 people still visit each weekend in January to be guided to the best eagle-viewing spots.
"You know it's January and February when you see people in town with binoculars," Lisa Socha, executive director of the Marshall County Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the News. "It's really been great for the area, being tied with the eagle awareness."
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service has led states in such projects as stealing eggs from eagles in heavily populated areas so they would lay a second set The eggs would then be incubated and the eaglets brought to such states as Alabama, which had no eagles by the 1960s. Every contiguous state now has eagle populations.
"It's a success story, something a lot of people have worked a long time to get to," Hudson said. "We didn't know what would happen or if they would ever recover at all."
Information from: The Birmingham News