Bald eagle populations soaring in lower 48 states, new studies show

Bald eagles roost in a tree in Iron County, Utah, January 2021 | Photo courtesy of Christian van den Brink, St. George News / Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE – Populations of the American bald eagle have quadrupled since 2009, according to a new report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners.

Bald eagles once teetered on the brink of extinction, reaching an all-time low of 417 known nesting pairs in 1963 in the lower 48 states. However, after decades of protection, the banning of the pesticide DDT, and conservation efforts with numerous partners, the bald eagle population has flourished, according to a press statement from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program say the bald eagle population climbed to an estimated 316,700 individual bald eagles in the lower 48 states. This indicates the bald eagle population has continued to increase rapidly since a previous survey that counted more than 71,400 nesting pairs. The updated information is included in a new technical report, now available on the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s eagle management page.

“Today’s announcement is truly a historic conservation success story,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in the news release. “Announcements like ours today give me hope. I believe that we have the opportunity of a lifetime to protect our environment and our way of life for generations to come. But we will only accomplish great things if we work together.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams said the recovery of the bald eagle is “one of the most well-known conservation success stories of all time.”

“The Service continues to work with our partners in state and federal agencies, tribes, non-government organizations and with private landowners to ensure that our nation’s symbol continues to flourish,” Williams said.

A juvenile bald eagle roosts in a tree in Iron County, Utah, January 2021 | Photo courtesy of Christian van den Brink, St. George News / Cedar City News

In the wake of the announcement, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Keith Day spoke to St. George News about bald eagles in Utah, where he’s helped track populations for more than 25 years.

While January’s annual midwinter bald eagle survey conducted in Iron County did show lower bird counts this year, Day said there were possible explanations.

“We usually have our highest number of eagles beginning in middle of December and going through the middle of January,” he said. “We did not see large numbers of bald eagles beginning to show up until the end of January, but we also had a very warm open winter. And that could be why they may just not have come down, because there was suitable habitat further north.”

Day spoke of how both the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon, once categorized as endangered species, have since made remarkable recoveries.

“Organic pesticides were, to a large degree, responsible for the decline,” he said. “A lot of things have changed which allow both species to come back and both of them have been delisted. Both of them seem to be doing very, very well.”

Still, Day noted, a number of concerns remain.

“For species that are at the top of the food chain, pollutants and toxic (materials) are still of concern. Leaded ammunition is one of those,” he said, adding that eagles and other large raptors are also at risk of being electrocuted on power poles.

Another hazard, Day noted, is that eagles are occasionally hit by vehicles when they land on highways to feast on roadkill.

“(Motorists) keep driving at highway speeds thinking that a bird can fly away, and these large birds just don’t get airborne that that quickly,” he noted.

A bald eagle roosts in a tree in Iron County, Utah, January 2021 | Photo courtesy of Christian van den Brink, St. George News / Cedar City News

Day went on to say there are probably two or three dozen breeding pairs of bald eagles who make their nesting homes in Utah, while many others can be seen throughout the state seasonally as they migrate.

To estimate the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states, Migratory Bird Program pilot biologists and observers from many Fish and Wildlife Service regions, programs and contract observers conducted aerial surveys over a two-year period in 2018 and 2019, the news release stated, adding that the aerial surveys were flown over high-density eagle nesting areas to generate accurate estimates and count occupied nesting territories.

To obtain information on the lower density eagle nesting areas, the agency worked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to use eBird relative abundance data to acquire information on the areas that were not practical to fly as part of the aerial surveys.

“Working with Cornell to integrate data from our aerial surveys with eBird relative abundance data on bald eagles is one of the most impressive ways the Service has engaged with citizen science programs to date,” Assistant Director for Migratory Bird Program Jerome Ford said in the release. “This critical information was imperative to accurately estimate the bald eagle population in the contiguous United States, and we look forward to working with Cornell in the future.”

Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez, the assistant director of Cornell Lab’s Center for Avian Population Studies who supervised the lab’s role in this partnership, said one of their main objectives was to see if population modeling based on the Cornell Lab’s eBird data would enhance the survey work the Fish and Wildlife Service was already doing.

“We now have greater confidence in using our results to supplement the Service’s monitoring efforts,” Ruiz-Gutierrez said, “and we’re hoping that this will allow the Service to track bald eagle populations over a much wider area in the most cost-effective manner in the future.”

St. George News / Cedar City News reporter Jeff Richards contributed to this report.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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