Nest-building eagles evicted from airport

Birdwatchers and trail walkers cry foul

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2006

Some trail walkers are fuming at the Juneau International Airport cutting a spruce tree that some believe contained a protected eagle nest.

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"The nest was cut down two days before eggs were laid," Juneau resident and naturalist Laurie Ferguson Craig said. "What a cruel thing to do."

Airport officials said it was not really a nest yet, and safety comes first. The tree sits along the airport dike trail at the corner of the floatplane area.

"It was not an eagle's nest, only sticks in the tree with the potential to be a nesting area," said Airport Business Manager Patricia deLaBruere. She said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that.

"We saw a potential for disruption in the floatplane flight pattern, which we wanted to address," deLaBruere said. "It was decided to top the tree, rather than cut it down."

"It was a nest and it was occupied," Craig said. "This would have been a fantastic opportunity for many to watch a phenomenal natural event."

Few places offer such an intimate relationship with bald eagles as the airport dike trail, popular with people walking their dogs, birdwatchers and anyone seeking fresh air and a sense of openness. The trail borders the airport and enters the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge.

Craig has walked the trail for at least 20 years, she said. She has taken copious notes on the eagle pair, which she said nested regularly in the topped spruce every season for the last six years. The eagles built the new nest July 5, she said with certainty.

"I went to the trail at 7:30 a.m. Thursday and when I returned later that night it was gone," Craig said. "Eagles' nests are protected by the government, aren't they?"

The Bald Eagle Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1940, prohibited molesting or destroying bald eagle habitats.

"We can say it was nest debris, and if there are eagles in the nest, then they are protected," said Mike Jacobson, an eagle management specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But the airport folks were given a verbal OK to remove nest material because it was a perceived risk to human safety."

Jacobson said verbal approval was given to remove sticks and debris deposited by the pair of eagles. The order was meant to ensure the health and safety of anyone aboard aircraft, he said. It was given from Anchorage, and not by him, he said.

"I just can't believe this happened," said Darlene Tyson, who lives in the Mendenhall Valley. "It does not look like it is in the path of floatplanes."

Tyson was joined by Bud Harris on the trail Friday at lunchtime. She pondered the potential loss of the eagles' resting place as a plane passed overhead.

"People come out here just to watch the birds," said Harris. "There are some serious birdwatchers."

Ron Metzgar is a dike trail regular who has walked it since 1974. He said the trail is so amazing and beautiful he can't believe it is in the middle of town.

"There was an officer out here Thursday afternoon who said we could not go any farther on the trail and I knew something was happening," Metzgar said. "Now I know."

Airport safety also was cited for a seagull-killing program at Lemon Creek dump this winter. Federal biologists killed 50 garbage-dump gulls to curb a threat to airplanes flying near the airport.

In February they asked to take 100 more. They were given approval, but didn't kill additional gulls because it was not needed, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Karen Blejwas.

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