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Flexibility promotes bald eagle conservation

Posted: March 13, 2012 - 12:00am

A recent proposal to eliminate the City and Borough of Juneau’s (CBJ’s) 24-year-old ordinance that protects bald eagle nests has sparked a public debate in the community (see Juneau Empire, 1/30/2012 and 1/31/2012).

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) would like to clarify some points pertaining to bald eagle protection in the U.S, the USFWS Bald Eagle Permitting Program, and our commitment to protecting bald eagles within the CBJ.

The bald eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List across the United States in 2007. Although never listed as threatened or endangered in Alaska, bald eagles, their eggs, and nests remain protected throughout the United States, including Alaska, under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA; enacted in 1940). This federal law forbids take of eagles, defined as “pursuing, hunting, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing, capturing, trapping, collecting, possessing, molesting, or disturbing” eagles. While most people would never consider intentionally killing our national symbol, many are not aware that “molesting” and “disturbing” eagles is also illegal.

Eagles can be sensitive to habitat alterations and disruptive activities near their nests, leading, in some cases, to abandonment of a nest or death of an egg or chick. The USFWS has worked with CBJ, the Forest Service, the State of Alaska, private companies, and homeowners for many years to help plan projects near eagle nests to minimize the risk of disturbing nesting eagles. Over the years, we developed guidelines to help people understand how far from their nests eagles typically tolerate disruptive work.

In 2007, before bald eagles were removed from the list of Threatened Species, the USFWS developed National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines. These rules help landowners, developers and others avoid impacts to nesting eagles and their young. The most common methods include retaining permanent buffers between nest trees and human activity, and timing activities to accomplish potentially disruptive work outside the nesting season. Buffer distances vary depending on the intensity of the work and the amount of disturbance any particular pair of eagles already tolerates. The complete guidelines are available online at http://alaska.fws.gov/eaglepermit/pdf/national_guidelines.pdf.

With the realization that some projects could not adhere to the guidelines, the USFWS established the Eagle Permitting Program in November 2009. This program allows “disturbance” of bald eagles in certain situations when the guidelines cannot be met. Each situation is thoroughly analyzed to ensure all appropriate avoidance and minimization options are implemented before a permit is issued. If project activities would be detrimental to eagle productivity, a stipulation for mitigation, perhaps through contribution to an eagle conservation fund, could be added to the permit, to provide a net benefit to the local eagle population.

Obtaining a permit is optional, under federal regulations, but it confers valuable protection to those planning construction near an eagle nest. As long as the conditions of the permit are followed, the permit holder is not held liable under the BGEPA, for disturbance that results from activities covered by the permit. The eagles benefit from incorporation of the maximum feasible avoidance and minimization into the project plan, which doesn’t always happen when people are not aware of eagle sensitivities and legal requirements. In many cases, compensatory mitigation is required to provide a net benefit to eagles.

The USFWS remains available to consult with anyone who has questions about eagles, or how best to proceed with a project near an eagle nest. Since the permit program’s inception in 2009, the USFWS’s Juneau Field Office has handled over 400 eagle inquiries. Only six of these projects could not meet the guidelines and were issued permits to proceed. Most were able to utilize the guidelines to complete their projects without “taking” eagles.

We consider CBJ’s eagle ordinance a valuable contribution toward bald eagle conservation, especially as it alerts residents to potential impacts, before a project begins. We look forward to continuing this productive partnership as we work with the city, individuals, and developers to ensure that nesting bald eagles remain a common, but treasured part of our unique community. For more detailed information on bald eagles, please visit our webpage: http://alaska.fws.gov/eagle_junuea/index.htm. For questions on specific projects or eagle related matters, please contact Scott Frickey at 780-1184.

• Frickey is the eagle permit biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Juneau Field Office.

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