Eagle's nest ensnared by mix of interests

Biological concerns, government regs, local interest in conflict

Posted: Tuesday, July 30, 2002

An eagle's nest perched in a precarious tree along North Douglas Highway is the focus of a tangle of biological interest, government regulations and local concern.

In mid-July a mudslide near False Outer Point washed out the hillside supporting a tree that held the nest of seven eaglets. The eaglets were taken to repopulate eagles on an island off the California coast, which ruffled some of the birds' human neighbors. Meanwhile, the partly uprooted nest tree, covered by eagle-habitat protection laws, cannot be removed, creating a potential danger to passing motorists.

Resident Carol Biggs was walking along the highway a few days after the mudslide when she encountered a man with a crossbow shooting a rope into branches of the tree. Half of the tree's roots were exposed and hanging in the air above the slide area. The nest on top made it appear top-heavy.

As Biggs watched, the man climbed the tree, stood inside the eagle's nest, put an eaglet in a cloth bag and lowered it to the ground, where it was loaded into a dog kennel.

At first, Biggs thought the man was saving the 8-week-old birds from the unstable tree, but a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist nearby told her the agency would be relocating the eaglets to California.

"At first I was relieved," she said, "But when I realized what they were going to do with them, I was very upset."

Biggs, who is an "eco-psychologist," takes her patients into the wilderness for therapy.

After the eaglets were collected, Biggs said, the parents circled the nest crying for their young.

"It upset me because the eagle adults were not considered. No one asked for their permission," she said. "I tried to communicate to them nonverbally, but how can you explain something like that? It is like I came in your house and stole your baby or your dog."

Fish and Wildlife biologist Phil Schempf, who supervised collecting the eaglets, doesn't see it that way. Southeast Alaska has close to 20,000 eagles, so moving seven to California won't have much of an impact, he said.

As for the parent birds, they should be fine, he said.

"I'm not a bald eagle psychologist, but I'd be skeptical that (the parent birds have been traumatized)," Schempf said. "The theory is that these animals try to produce as many young as they can. For the birds to fall into a deep depression after the loss of their young would not be a good strategy."

The group that took the eaglets, a California nonprofit called The Institute of Wilderness Studies, is using them to help repopulate Santa Cruz Island, where eagles were wiped out in the 1950s because DDT contamination softened the raptors' egg shells.

Peter Sharpe with the institute said his organization had all of the necessary state and federal permits to take the eaglets. It was coincidence that he happened to find eagles of the right age in a compromised nest. The eagles probably will have an easier time in the California environment, he said.

"There is good food, warmer weather and less competition. We have a pretty high survival rate," Sharpe said.

The eaglets have been put in cages atop utility poles, where they will be hand-fed until they are able to fly, Sharpe said. The institute repopulated Catalina Island using the same technique.

Meanwhile on North Douglas, the empty nest, which measures 6 feet in diameter and can support the weight of at least the 160-pound man who captured the eaglets, looms from its perch on a cliff above the highway.

"There is no question a significant wind storm would create a high chance that the (tree and the nest) would fall into the road," said Greg Patz, Southeast chief of maintenance and operations for the state Department of Transportation.

"We've been informed by Fish and Wildlife that we cannot remove the tree," Patz said.

Schempf, with Fish and Wildlife, said most eagles in the United States are protected under the Endangered Species Act, but in Alaska, where eagles are plentiful, the act doesn't apply. The eagles are protected instead by a federal law that was passed as a patriotic gesture in the 1940s, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which outlaws any eagle-nest disturbance unless it is for scientific purposes.

"We are caught between a rock and a hard place," Schempf said. "The (law) doesn't give us any wiggle room."

Though eagles return to the same nest year after year, they also will build a new one nearby if an old one is removed, Schempf said. Karen Laing, Fish and Wildlife's migratory bird permit coordinator in Anchorage, said the agency has dealt with similar situations by choosing not to prosecute people who violate the act for safety reasons. The decision has to be made locally, she said.

"We're still waiting to hear, but we might just have to let nature take its course, then clean up afterward," said Van Sundberg, environmental coordinator with DOT. "Our concern is that if it falls in the road, there's a danger to the public, and the state has deep pockets, and we are just sitting ducks (for a lawsuit)."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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