Bald eagles history

The Bald Eagle Story

On June 20, 1782, the founding fathers of the United States of America selected the bald eagle as the national bird. Symbolic of the country itself, the bald eagle has since gone through some trying times. It has been poisoned, trapped, shot, killed for bounty and otherwise blown out of our skies by people who felt an eagle belonged on a dollar bill rather than atop a white pine tree in northern Minnesota.

As our state was settled by pioneers, birds of prey were generally considered "varmints" because they competed with people for use of fish and game species. Sometimes birds of prey also killed domestic livestock. Birds of prey, collectively called raptors, were killed on sight.

In addition, the proliferation of pesticides like DDT followed World War II created a poisonous environment for raptors. DDT was passed along the food chain from fish and other organisms to bald eagles. That concentrated the chemicals in their bodies, causing their eggshells to become so thin that routine incubation crushed the eggs.

Bald eagle closeup.
The Nongame Wildlife Program spends about $50,000 per year on bald eagle conservation efforts.

The American public, through neglect, allowed their national symbol to become an endangered species. This careless abuse of our national bird did not reflect well on our commitment to save other, more obscure, endangered species.

However, the eventual recovery of the bald eagle has become a conservation success story.

The recovery of bald eagles in Minnesota is particularly impressive. The population has now exceeded its recovery goal of 300 occupied nest territories and is growing by about 30 nesting pairs per year!

Eagles have expanded their range from northern Minnesota and now nest in southeastern Minnesota. In 1988, they even began nesting along the Minnesota River Valley in western Minnesota for the first time in over 100 years. In 2007, it was estimated the Minnesota population is over 2300 pairs!

Many people and agencies have helped bring back the bald eagles. The recovery of the bald eagle began in the early 1960's in the Chippewa National Forest in north central Minnesota. United States Forest Service biologist John Mathisen became nationally recognized for his pioneering efforts to save nesting eagle populations. The U.S. Forest Service prepared individual management plans for every eagle breeding area on the Chippewa National Forest. These now number 144. Buffer zones and seasonal limits on human activity near eagle nests helped eagles increase their numbers.

Dr. Dan Frenzel of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Al Grewe of St. Cloud State University banded eagle chicks on their nests and studies eagle ecology. Some of their graduate students have gone on to become nationally known eagle researchers - like Dr. Thomas Dunstan. Dr. Dunstan grew up watching and studying the bald eagles of Trout Lake in northeastern Minnesota. He later studied eagles in the Chippewa National Forest. In all, nine graduate students have done research in the forest, resulting in over 50 publications!

Beginning in the early 1970's, The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota began contributing to the recovery of eagles by treating and releasing bald eagles that were found sick or injured. They have treated more than 90 eagles every year. As a tribute to their success, a female eagle nesting near the Twin Cities raised a chick in 1989 after being successfully treated and released by the Raptor Center. Two of the original leaders in this effort were Dr. Gary Duke and Dr. Pat Redig. Mark Martell from the Raptor Center currently treats many of the injured eagles and has also worked with Joan Galli of the DNR to study the survival of released eagles and eagle wintering behavior.

In 1978, a cooperative effort by the DNR Non-game Wildlife Program, The Raptor Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Minnesota identified lead poisoning in bald eagles at the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area near Watson, Minnesota. The eagles were eating sick and dead Canada geese and mallard ducks that had lead shotgun pellets in their bodies. Graduate students Steve Hennes and Fred Bengston did research projects that verified this problem. This threat to eagles contributed to the decision to ban lead shot for all waterfowl hunting in Minnesota.

Another boost for eagles came when the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program teamed up with The Raptor Center, the DNR Division of Enforcement and the Minnesota Trapper's Association to ban "open bait" trap sets fro predator trapping. These sets indiscriminately catch and injure carrion feeders such as bald eagles. It is now illegal to place traps within 25 feet of exposed baits. This has helped reduce the loss of bald eagles by accidental trapping.

Each year, the Minnesota DNR captures four eagle chicks in northern Minnesota for transport and release in other states. Only one chick is taken from each of four nests, leaving one or two chicks for the parents to raise. In this way, Minnesota has aided in the restoration of bald eagles in New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and Georgia.

The preparation of individual nest management plans for bald eagles has now gone beyond the national forests. Regional DNR nongame wildlife specialists prepare bald eagle nest management plans for state, county, and private lands throughout Minnesota. The plans are prepared free of charge for landowners.

Other current eagle conservation efforts include aerial surveys of eagle wintering areas in southeastern Minnesota by DNR regional nongame specialist Joan Galli and analysis of mercury in the blood of eagle chicks hatched in northern lakes where the water has high mercury levels (blood samples are taken from chicks before they leave the nest). Two bald eagle nests threatened by lakeshore development were saved through acquisition by the Nongame Wildlife Program and the Reinvest in Minnesota Program. The nests were on Trout Lake near Bovey. They had been in use since the early 1950's. The two areas total 55 acres and are managed as wildlife management areas with seasonal sanctuaries for the eagles.

The Nongame Wildlife Program spends about $50,000 per year on bald eagle conservation efforts.

The bald eagle received federal protection in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act. It was designated as threatened in Minnesota in 1984, with its status in the state upgraded to Special Concern in 1996. The species was removed from both the federal list (2007) and the state list (2013) of endangered and threatened species, due to the dramatic recovery of bald eagle numbers nationwide.

The recovery of the Bald Eagle to healthy, sustainable population levels was identified as a high priority conservation goal by public agencies, universities, conservation groups, and private citizens of Minnesota.   Because of this and the dramatic recovery of their population, Governor Tim Pawlenty declared August 31st, 2007 Bald Eagle Recovery Day in Minnesota.

The next time you see an eagle, remember the team effort that has brought them back and remember that you can help preserve the eagles by donating to the Nongame Wildlife Checkoff on your Minnesota tax forms. You can also help eagles by sending a donation to The Raptor Center, University of Minnesota, 1920 Fitch Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota 55108.

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