‘Celebration time’ for Washington’s bald eagles

Scott Doggett
Posted 4/17/24

The rebound of the bald eagle population in the Lower 48 from the brink of extinction 60 years ago to well over a quarter million of the sea birds today is one of the greatest species-recovery …

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‘Celebration time’ for Washington’s bald eagles


The rebound of the bald eagle population in the Lower 48 from the brink of extinction 60 years ago to well over a quarter million of the sea birds today is one of the greatest species-recovery stories of all time.

The rebound is breathtaking. The number of bald eagles in the contiguous U.S. soared from about 1,000 in 1963 to 333,000 in 2022. So says the draft version of the 2024 periodic status review for the species released by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in February.

The final version, which will be ready by June, is unlikely to have any significant changes, Taylor Cotten, the WDFW conservation assessment section manager for all of Washington, told me this month.

What's significant about that? What's significant is that the review will close the book on the state's treatment of the national bird as a special-needs case, Taylor said.

"We're required to do the review by the Washington Administrative Code. It's the last step in the recovery of the species," he said, adding, "It's celebration time."

Existing laws protecting the bald eagle will remain in effect, but no longer will the state or others throw limited resources into growing the birds' numbers.

Instead, those resources will shift toward the recovery of threatened species, a club in which the bald eagle is no longer viewed as a member by either state or federal wildlife agencies.

Here on the Olympic Peninsula, focus on breeding other success stories has already shifted to Tufted puffins (white-face birds with big orange bills), sea otters (the type that floats on its back, not river otters like those that wander parts of Port Townsend) and Taylor's checkerspot butterflies, said Taylor (no relation).

"How did the bald eagle get into so much trouble down here, and what about the bald eagles in Alaska?" you ask. In Alaska, bald eagles were never on an endangered-species list.

But that wasn't the case in the Lower 48, where there was a terrible misunderstanding: After bald eagles were seen feeding on cattle corpses, ranchers took to shooting the birds on the mistaken belief that a 10-pound raptor could take down a 700-pound Jersey heifer.

It was a horribly costly mistake for our national bird. By 1940 it was headed toward extinction. Congress responded with the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which outlawed killing, selling, or possessing the birds.

The act, which remains in effect, has saved countless bald eagles, but only a few years after its passage the species was broadsided by a chemical used to combat malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

A Swiss chemist named Paul Hermann Muller discovered that DDT made a superb mosquito slayer, which earned him a Nobel Prize that he didn't return when other people discovered that DDT killed countless bald eagles during its heyday in the USA (1945-1972) and was likely a people- slayer to boot.

The verdict is still out on whether DDT, which many people applied to their skin like DEET, is carcinogenic. But there's no doubt that DDT sprayed on crops and wetlands across America made its way into fish that bald eagles ate. That resulted in the birds producing eggshells so thin their babies were crushed during incubation.

By 1963 only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles were known to exist in the Lower 48, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Lev Levy told me last week.

DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972 following an environmental outcry generated by the 1962 publication of the book "Silent Spring." Ardent support of DDT by the chemical industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture accounts for the 10-year lag between the book's publication and the ban.

The ban and the efforts of people such as WDFW Wildlife Biologist Shelly Ament account for much of the eagles' recovery. Shelly spent 21 years rescuing bald eagles on the Olympic Peninsula and beyond in large part by working with landowners to abide by regulations designed to protect the birds' nests and perching trees.

She was one of two WDFW biologists in Washington "protecting habitat-minimizing disturbance so every single pair out there had an opportunity to continue to nest at their nesting territory and produce chicks," she said during a wonderfully positive interview I wish I could post here in its entirety.

Instead of pushback, Shelly said that about 80% of the landowners she approached were agreeable when she came to them with requests to not build within so many feet of a nest or to not operate heavy machinery near nests when eagles were incubating their eggs.

But Shelly and WDFW Research Scientist Jim Watson, who has spent more than 40 years working with bald eagles, primarily in Washington, credit the birds themselves for much of their recovery.

Jim, who will be featured later this year in a column about the hunting prowess of bald eagles, and Shelly said that while other species often move away from people, thus limiting their habitat, the eagles have adapted to human landscapes quite well. Their nests can be seen near airports and busy highways, for instance.

Moreover, bald eagles aren't picky eaters. From a long menu of live animals to the most rancid piece of salmon, elk or whale, the bald eagle chows down. This allows it to thrive when a species reliant on only one or two food sources would slip.

Returning to the periodic review, the last sentence reads: "The bald eagle population, including the segment that occurs in Washington, is robust, and all indications are that the species will continue to be an important and thriving part of our state's avifauna for the foreseeable future."

If that's not a happy ending I don't know what is.


Scott Doggett is a former staff writer for the Outdoors section of the Los Angeles Times. He and his wife, Susan, live in Port Townsend.