Bald eagle may no longer be endangered in PA

| December 17, 2013 | 0 Comments

Peregrine falcon making slower, but steady recovery  

By Emily Balser, Point Park News Service:

A bald eagle is in its exhibit at the National Aviary. Photo: Emily Balser | Point Park News Service

A bald eagle is in its exhibit at the National Aviary. Photo: Emily Balser | Point Park News Service

A national symbol for the United States, the bald eagle represents freedom and perseverance. But the species itself has had to endure threats to its existence over the years.

Marking a milestone in the bird’s recovery across the state, the bald eagle is set to be removed from the Pennsylvania Threatened and Endangered Species List this year.

“Bald eagles, as of the 2013 field season, they have achieved all the metrics, the measurements, that would really be necessary for delisting,” said Dan Brauning, wildlife diversity division chief with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The measurements, which are outlined in the bald eagle management plan, include having 150 active nests for five years. The state also counts the number of counties in which nests are found and how many young are produced from those nests.

“We’ve been able to sustain those numbers for a long enough time period that we don’t think it’s a statistical fluke or that something would change suddenly, and they would turn around and have to list them again,” Brauning said.

The bald eagle was moved from “endangered” to “threatened” on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1995 and delisted in 2007. Even though it made a successful return across the country, that doesn’t mean each state has a large population. This is why the bird remained on the Pennsylvania Threatened and Endangered Species List.

Brauning said when the game commission meets with its board for quarterly meetings, it presents the most recent information regarding the species. The board, which is a governor-appointed group of eight members that rule on regulatory issues, will the make the final ruling on whether the eagle will be moved to “protected.”

Brauning said the game commission believes measurements of the bald eagle are sufficient enough to have it delisted, but the issue is available for public comment if the public feels it’s not ready.

“We’ll assemble the comment we receive from the public and present that to our board in January, and then they will make the final decision,” Brauning said.

Charles Bier, senior director of conservation science with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, said the eagle recovery has been great, but there is no way to know how many eagles there were in the state before the decline. He said there could actually be more now.

“It’s gone off the charts with its recovery rate,” Bier said. “We do wonder, ‘Were there really this many in the state at that time?’”

Bier cautioned that while delisting the eagle is something to celebrate, threats still remain in the environment. He said just because a species gets delisted, doesn’t mean the efforts stop.

“It’s good to revel in the good news and keep on with the work and the education,” Bier said.

Some of that education includes encouraging the public to get involved with recovery efforts and species monitoring.

The National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side offers a place for the public to learn about birds – endangered and not endangered – through exhibits and special programs. One of these programs is “Talons!,” which currently shows daily at the aviary and features birds of prey, including the bald eagle.

Christa Gaus, eagle trainer at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side, stands in front of the bald eagle exhibit at the aviary. Photos by Emily Balser.

Christa Gaus, eagle trainer at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side, stands in front of the bald eagle exhibit at the aviary. Photos by Emily Balser.

“Working with the endangered species in particular is a real joy,” said Christa Gaus, eagle trainer at the aviary. “It’s something that we’re all very passionate about because it does give us a chance to bring [the species to] people that may have never seen a bald eagle in the wild or a peregrine falcon in the wild.”

She said although people might see one at a distance, seeing it up close allows them to appreciate “their size, power and beauty.”

“It gives us a chance to get them nice and close to the public and give them that experience to inspire [the public] to continue to protect them out in the wild,” she said.

The Aviary has four bald eagles. Two are exhibit birds, one is for education and shows and another is involved with education part-time. The eagles come directly from either a rehabber, which takes in injured bald eagles, or from another facility, such as a zoo.

The Aviary also works with another endangered species in Pennsylvania, the peregrine falcon. It took over the peregrine falcon nest-monitoring program from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy around 2007. There are nest cameras at the Cathedral of Learning on the campus of University of Pittsburgh and also at Point Park University.

“With us partnering with the nest cam over at Pitt, you get people that have followed our link on our website for a long time,” Gaus said. ”Whenever anything happens with them, sometimes I feel they know before we do.”

Kate St. John, a bird enthusiast who also runs a bird watching blog, is active with the peregrine falcon nest at University of Pittsburgh. She discovered a pair of peregrine falcons in the area in 2002 and helped to set up the nest.

“I saw a pair of peregrines in courtship flight on top of the Cathedral of Learning,” she said. “I was certainly wowed.”

A bird-lover since adolescence, St. John knew the significance of spotting a pair of peregrine falcons in Pittsburgh – a rare occurrence because the bird was listed on the state endangered species list and had only recently been taken off of the U.S. endangered species list a few years before. There was only one other nesting spot in the city at the time at the Gulf Tower.

St. John listed what she saw on a state bird sighting list. After some time working with the state Game Commission, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the University, a nest was constructed for the falcons at the Cathedral of Learning.

“The nest went up in February, and the birds claimed it almost in hours,” she said.

That same pair, named Dorothy and E2, still nest in that location to this day, which St. John continues to monitor.

The peregrine falcon isn’t as much as a success story as the eagle, but it is heading in the right direction, experts said. As with the bald eagle, a management plan has been set up for the peregrine falcon.

“We’re many years away from achieving those goals,” said Bob Mulvihill, ornithologist at the National Aviary.

The goals for the peregrine falcon include having 22 nesting pairs, which is half of the original population before the decline. Mulvihill said there are only 12 nesting pairs at this time.

Another issue is where the peregrines nest, which is on both man-made structures, such as the Cathedral of Learning, and in natural dwellings, such as cliffs.

After the bird is delisted, many nests on man-made structures will no longer be protected. Only some of those nets count towards the recovery goal of 22.

“In the recovery goal, we don’t completely dismiss those sites, because they do contribute,” Brauning said. “Cliff nesting sites is our goal, but we will add all the cliff nesting sites that we know of and divide the number of man-made structure nest sites by a quarter and add that up. And we’ll take that as a recovery goal of 22.”

While the success of the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon are highlights of endangered species, Bier said that the work to rebuild species and their habitats is never done, even with recoveries as well as the bald eagle.

“These are just two species out of thousands,” Bier said. “We have lots of other species to be concerned about.”

This story was produced for The Allegheny Front to mark the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. 

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Category: Business, Environment, Fall 2013

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