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