Homer eagles will be beggars no more

FEEDING BAN: Law begins next winter and also applies to ravens, crows and gulls.

February 15, 2006 

  • WASHINGTON -- The proud symbol of a nation for more than two centuries, the iconic and elegant American bald eagle also is emblematic of a snail-paced federal bureaucracy.

    Seven years after the government said the fierce raptor is no longer threatened with extinction, officials finally have a plan for removing it from the endangered species list.

    "Partly it just fell through the cracks," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, who proposed delisting the bird in 1999 while she was President Clinton's Fish and Wildlife Service director.

    The process has taken far longer than the typical year, partly because updated counts are required from each of the states, and some of those have rules that add red tape.

    Clark called the bald eagle "a success story" for the embattled Endangered Species Act, which Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration have been pushing to reshape so that more responsibility is given to private landowners instead of the federal government.

    "Across the range, you can't deny the incredible success of the return of the bald eagle," she said. "A lot of attention, energy and money was put into its recovery."

    The bird has battled back from the threat of extinction caused by habitat loss and the pesticide DDT.

    The Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service issued draft voluntary guidelines spelling out how landowners, land managers and others should protect the bird once the 1973 law no longer safeguards it.

    It also proposed prohibitions on "disturbing" the bald eagle, which could include anything that would disrupt its breeding, feeding or shelter, or cause injury, death or nest abandonment.

    Officials said Monday's action could lead to the bald eagle coming off the endangered species list within the next year or so.

    "Should the eagle be delisted, we expect that the public will notice little change in how eagles are managed and protected," said H. Dale Hall, the Fish and Wildlife Service's director.

    Hall said at least 7,066 known nesting pairs now exist in the contiguous United States. The bald eagle's territory stretches over much of the North American continent. Tens of thousands more live in Alaska and Canada, where their existence never was imperiled.

    However, 43 years ago, there were just 417 known nesting pairs left in the lower 48 states, mainly because of the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides that weakened the bald eagle's eggshells and reduced its birth rate. The brown-bodied bird with the distinctive white head and tail also suffered from lead poisoning -- eating waterfowl pierced by hunters' lead shot.

    In 1967, under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act, the bald eagle was declared an endangered species in the lower 48. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT for most uses.

    Fish and Wildlife officials in 1978 listed the bald eagle as endangered in 43 states and threatened in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. The government hatched detailed recovery plans, with specific population and reproduction goals. Sometimes eggs were imported from Canada and installed at artificial eyries.

    By 1995, the species had rebounded enough to be reclassified as merely threatened throughout the Lower 48.

    If and when the bald eagle is removed from the endangered list, two other laws will continue to protect it: the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act, later revised to include the golden eagle. But those don't address habitat.

    David Smith, the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife, said the agency wouldn't hesitate to act "if at any time in the future it becomes evident that the eagle needs relisting for protections."

HOMER -- The feeding program that draws hundreds of bald eagles to the Homer Spit every winter will be phased out under an ordinance adopted Monday by the Homer City Council.

The new law, passed 4-2, bars deliberate feeding of eagles, ravens, crows and gulls beginning next winter. It carves out an exception for 82-year-old Jean Keene, the famous "Eagle Lady" who has been feeding eagles on the Spit for 25 years. But even Keene's program must end by 2010, the City Council ruled.

"We're still going to have eagles in Homer," said Councilman Val McLay, who consulted with Keene in working out the final compromise.

The first groups to be affected will be guided photography "safaris" that come to Homer in late winter and sometimes draw eagles into wide-angle camera range with baitfish. McLay said he delayed enforcement of the ordinance so that photographers with reservations could still come this year.

"You don't have to have hundreds of eagles to take a photograph," said McLay, who heard protests from out-of-town photographers about his proposal. "If these photographers are so damn bad that they couldn't get a picture of an eagle, then they need to be better photographers."

He said some photos taken of Homer Spit eagles were being dishonestly marketed as photos of eagles in the wild.

The city acted one month after the state Board of Game declined to regulate the practice of eagle feeding. The state regulators said the problems were local and the jurisdiction federal.

Opposition in Homer to eagle feeding has grown in recent years. Critics say the surly-looking mobs of eagles waiting for handouts are unnatural and demeaning. They say the crowding is unhealthy for the eagles -- not to mention for bite-sized pets and birds such as sea ducks.

Government biologists generally frowned on the practice but stopped short of calling for regulation.

Supporters called the eagle feeding a novelty whose alleged harms have never been studied, much less proved. They also pointed to the small economic boost to winter tourism. They lavished much of their support on Keene, a local icon who lives on the end of the Spit.

But even Keene had expressed reservations about the recent spread of eagle feeding.

The City Council's action was praised Tuesday by the anti-feeding Alaska Eagle Watch Network, which called it "a compromise that will limit and monitor the commercialization of bald eagle feeding."

McLay, a lifelong Homer resident, said he was moved to take action in part by hearing that state transportation officials may frown on airport upgrades if eagles are being attracted to the area. He also said he was aggravated by the flocks of crows and ravens that he said were drawn to town by the eagle feeding.

"The crows are worse than eagles or ravens about getting into the garbage," he said.

Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at tkizzia@adn.com or in Homer at 907-235-4244.

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