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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Pennsylvania's Bald Eagle Numbers are Becoming Hard to Track

For the first time ever, the mid-year inventory released annually by the Pennsylvania Game Commission shows a decrease in the number of bald-eagle nests reported statewide.

Does the total suggest eagle populations are hurting?

Far from it, the experts say.

But with staffing cuts at the Game Commission leading to reduced observations, and the public less likely to report nesting activity as bald eagles become more plentiful, 239 bald-eagle nests – a decrease of 38 nests – have been reported so far in 2016.

“In no way do we believe this decreased reported number represents a decline in the bald-eagle population,” said Dan Brauning, who heads up the Game Commission’s wildlife diversity division. “Eagles are doing fine. They continue to thrive and expand into new areas, and the inventory shows that
“But as our field and region staff take on an increased workload due to budget-driven staffing cuts, we are forced to place lower priority on documenting nests,” Brauning said. “While we’re certainly still interested in learning of new nests, and urge the public to report them, knowing nesting locations and nest productivity is harder today than it was in the days following bald-eagle reintroduction, or in the years when the bald eagle remained on the endangered- or threatened-species lists. There are many pressing responsibilities that require the attention of staff.”

Aside from the impacts staffing cuts have had on reporting, Patti Barber, a biologist with the Game Commission’s endangered and nongame birds section, said the lower mid-year number also could be a consequence of so many eagles being out there.

Many of the reports within the inventory come from citizens, and as bald eagles become more abundant and less of a novelty, fewer reports are bound to come in. Previously counted eagle pairs that relocate to a new nesting site sometimes are missed in the inventory. Even when their new nest tree is somewhere nearby, it might go unnoticed or unreported, especially if it’s off the beaten path. And new pairs of eagles that nest between existing pairs often are mistaken as one or the other existing pairs, and not recognized as a new pair.

Barber said citizens can help ensure bald-eagle nests aren’t missed in the inventory. Even nests that have been reported in previous years should be reported again if they were active this year.

Perhaps the easiest way to report a nest is by contacting the Game Commission through its public comments email address, pgccomments@pa.gov, and use the words “Eagle Nest Information” in the subject field.

Reports also can be phoned in to a Game Commission region office, or the Harrisburg headquarters.
Despite its lower bottom line, the 2016 mid-year inventory provides evidence of an expanding bald-eagle population. Of the 239 nests reported, 16 have been documented in newly established territories.

“From everything we hear and see, Pennsylvania’s bald eagles continue to thrive, exceeding our expectations and the numbers we can effectively monitor,” Barber said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Of course, that hasn’t always been the case.

Over the course of several decades, bald-eagle populations in Pennsylvania and nationwide were decimated by the effects of water pollution, persecution and compromised nest success caused by organochloride pesticides such as DDT. Prior to the Game Commission reintroducing the bald eagle to Pennsylvania in 1983, only three bald-eagle nests statewide were known to exist – all of them in Crawford County, in the northwestern corner of the state.

Over the next seven years, 88 bald-eagle chicks were taken from nests in Saskatchewan, Canada, and brought to Pennsylvania where they were “hacked,” a process by which the eaglets were raised by humans, but without knowing it, then released into the wild.

By 1998, Pennsylvania was home to 25 pairs of nesting bald eagles. By 2006, more than 100 nests were confirmed statewide.

The Game Commission’s mid-year report eclipsed the 200-nest mark in 2011. The number then jumped to 252 nests in 2013, and a record 277 last year.

So far in 2016, bald-eagle nests have been documented in 56 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough said the numbers tell the story of the bald eagle’s success, and that story is one worth celebrating.

“Many of us grew up in a world that mostly was devoid of eagles, and one where it wasn’t at all clear whether our national bird would continue to survive,” Hough said. “Who could have predicted then that, in our lifetime, we’d see the eagle population rebound to the point where sightings are common, and more people than ever are enjoying Pennsylvania’s eagles?

“It’s a remarkable success story that continues to remind us, no matter how impossible the task seems, when people come together with a focus on working for wildlife, incredible things can be achieved,” Hough said.
While Hough said he’s confident Pennsylvania’s bald-eagle population will continue to thrive, he expressed frustration the 2016 mid-year nest count was deflated, at least in part, by staffing shortages resulting from a long overdue increase in fees hunters and trappers pay for their licenses.

The Game Commission is mandated by the state Constitution to manage all of the more than 480 species of wildlife found in Pennsylvania, and it does so without any appropriation from the state’s general fund.
Instead, the Game Commission’s primary source of revenue comes from the fees Pennsylvania’s hunters and trappers pay each time they purchase their licenses.

While nearly every organized sportsmen’s group in the state has gone on record in support of a license-fee increase, the Game Commission, at the present time, is not permitted to raise or lower license fees to balance its budget; all license-fee adjustments must be approved by the state General Assembly.

“It’s now been more than 17 years since license fees were last increased – there hasn’t been one adjustment for inflation during that time, even though the price of just about everything has shot up,” Hough said. “In the past year, the agency has had to lay off staff, put off recruitment of a new wildlife conservation officer class, explore program cuts and indefinitely postpone construction projects. And the reduced number of bald-eagle nest reports in our mid-year inventory is just another small example of the trickle-down effects of fewer people needing to do more with less.

“Unfortunately, failure to provide new revenues for the agency will make it increasingly difficult to track other species, like the osprey and peregrine falcon, on the road to recovery, making future de-listings less likely,” Hough said. “And critical research and habitat work related to game species – everything we do really – will continue to suffer.

“Senate Bill 1166, which already cleared the Senate by a 47-2 vote, would change this by giving the Game Commission authority to approve when necessary incremental increases to license fees, avoiding the sharp spikes that arise when long-outdated fee amounts finally are brought up to speed,” Hough said. “This legislation would allow for gentler, more affordable transitions. And, if approved, the bill would seem a permanent solution to avoiding in the future fiscal crises like the one the agency now is in. For the sake of wildlife conservation in Pennsylvania, I ask you to please contact your legislators and urge them to adopt Senate Bill 1166.

Eagle-viewing tips

As bald eagles have expanded their range in Pennsylvania, more of the state’s residents regularly have been provided with chances to view them.

Although the bald eagle no longer is considered threatened in Pennsylvania or nationally, care still should be taken when viewing eagles, to prevent frightening them.

Those encountering nests are asked to keep a safe distance. Disturbing eagles is illegal under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Some pairs are tolerant of human activity, while others are sensitive. Their reaction often depends on the activity and approach of the individual, the nesting cycle stage, and if the eagles are used to seeing people.

Adults that are scared from a nest could abandon it, or might not return in time to keep unhatched eggs or young nestlings at the proper temperature. Frightened eaglets also could jump from the safety of the nest, then have no way to return.

Those viewing eagle nests are urged to keep their distance and use binoculars or spotting scopes to aid their viewing.

For more information on bald eagles and eagle-viewing etiquette, visit the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov.