Unalaska eagle population climbs to troubling heights

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2000

UNALASKA - Thanks to fish processing plants and abundant garbage, the number of eagles here has soared in the past decade - more than the area is able to support naturally.

The situation has caught the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which monitors the health of the birds in Alaska. The federal agency is asking coastal residents to eliminate food sources for the birds, including open Dumpsters, fish waste and hand-feeding.

The hope is that eagles will go elsewhere, resulting in a more natural distribution. A less pleasant scenario is that some eagles will starve, leaving the remaining birds with more food.

``It's definitely artificially concentrated there,'' Steve Kendall, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Dutch Harbor Fisherman. ``The main thing we're hoping is that their habitat can become a little more natural.''

During traditional Christmas bird counts, the numbers have soared from about 200 bald eagles in the early 1990s to nearly 700 in 1999.

``It's kind of a bum deal for them right now,'' said Suzi Golodoff, who coordinates a local bird count for the Audubon Society. ``The population looks stressed. If anybody throws a box of herring in the road, there's a hundred eagles on it right then.''

Some recent changes in Unalaska have put that eagle population in more jeopardy. In 1997, the landfill began baling and burning its garbage, which eliminated a food source for many eagles.

Golodoff said changes in fishing seasons also appear to leave eagles with fewer opportunities to find scraps.

Biologists say a huge murre die-off two years ago and large salmon runs in the past two years have given the eagles a brief reprieve. When those sources dwindle in the coming years, much of the eagle population is expected to starve or go elsewhere.

Golodoff sees the inevitable thinning of the eagle population as a tragic story, but ultimately a good situation for local birds. ``It's better to have 50 healthy eagles than 200 starving ones.''

Meanwhile, eagles are in an obvious struggle for survival. Fights between scavenging eagles have become common, and the birds have even been accidentally compacted in garbage trucks in some communities.

Ted Spencer, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska, said he was receiving as many as six reports a day of sick or injured eagles earlier this winter.

Local biologists helped during their personal time by sending many of the birds to Anchorage for care. Eventually, the burden became too heavy for them to handle.

``We just couldn't do anything about it,'' Spencer said. ``We just don't have the time.''

Phil Schempf, the state raptor specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, is planning a special trip to Unalaska later this winter to examine the eagle population.

``There aren't any simple solutions,'' he said. ``I don't really know what we can do about it.''

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