ANCHORAGE - The eagles are returning to the Homer Spit, as the "Eagle Lady" has resumed her winter feeding program. The professional photographers and expensive "photo safaris" will follow soon.
But opponents are hoping this will be the last winter for the gathering of eagles on Kachemak Bay. For the first time, proposals have been made to the state Board of Game that would ban eagle feeding in Alaska. The issue will come up when the board meets Jan. 27-29 in Anchorage.
Intense discussions are under way in state and federal wildlife agencies about what sort of recommendations to make to the board. Biologists generally frown on feeding healthy populations of wild animals. But there is little documented proof of harm from the practice, other than the occasional eagle that gets drowned or electrocuted, they say.
Kim Titus, deputy director of the state Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife Conservation Division, said he's heard of problems from Petersburg, Sitka and Kodiak as well as Homer.
"It's an interesting, thorny issue," said Titus, who is a bird-of-prey expert. "It's a bit out of the ordinary for the Board of Game."
Decades of winter feeding in Homer have created a seasonal population boom. During the annual Christmas bird count, 140 eagles were found in Homer - many at the local landfill. That's about average for recent years. More eagles will be coming as the feeding goes on.
In the 1970s, before the local feeding program began, the number of eagles at Christmas was 10 or fewer.
The main eagle-feeding program is a daily effort on the Spit by "Eagle Lady" Jean Keene. Lodges and photo tour leaders sometimes provide ad hoc feedings. The chance for a close-up look at the national bird is popular with visitors and photographers, who bring a welcome bit of winter-season cash to the local tourist economy.
"I can't think of one single reason to come to Homer, Alaska, in the middle of winter if there aren't any eagles," said Scott Bourne, a professional photographer from Gig Harbor, Wash., who is angry about efforts to shut the traffic down. He has made several eagle-shooting trips and said several hundred photographers come every year. At least four companies offer guided photo tours later in winter, charging up to $1,700 for five days on top of room, board and travel.
Some of those tours feed the eagles on the beaches with store-bought bait herring, attracting crowds of birds and spectators.
Frank Mullen, a Homer financial planner and commercial fisherman, said he went to the Spit during such a feeding last March to try out a new digital camera. He said he found scores of photographers, some of them with huge lenses, and well over 100 eagles swarming in the air like ravens. Two eagles collided, he said, and one of them hit the water.
"It fluttered and tried to fly for a minute, and then it sank out of sight," he said. "It didn't take long. Those eagles don't have a lot of fluff."
Critics say the mobs of eagles on the Spit are unnatural and reduce the proud predator to the status of Dumpster diver. They say it's unhealthy for the eagles - not to mention for bite-sized animals and birds such as sea ducks.
"You can't concentrate that many predators without creating problems," said Ed Bailey, a retired federal biologist who has helped spearhead the opposition to feeding in Homer. An outspoken conservationist, Bailey concedes he has disagreed with Game Board members in the past but thinks they might be on his side this time.
"Their current agenda is predator control, and it boils down to having an excessive number of eagles here. Not that I'm advocating predator control," he said.
Four proposals in front of the board - all from Homer - ask that the state add eagles to the list of six other species that cannot be legally fed under current rules. The issue is complicated because eagles are managed primarily by the federal government.
"We have been on record that feeding is a bad idea, but we've never officially promoted a feeding prohibition," said Bob Leedy, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Migratory Bird Management in Anchorage. He said internal discussions are under way about whether to make a federal recommendation to the state. A broader federal rule change would be more time-consuming and difficult to apply just to Alaska, where eagle populations are thriving.
The city of Homer also is considering a new law that would ban feeding of eagles on city-owned property, which covers much of the Spit.
All of which makes things a little awkward these days for Jean Keene, who is 82 and remains a local icon despite the grumbling about eagles. She defends her efforts to set out freezer-burned salmon and venison at her compound, well away from traffic and power lines, and argues that complaints from Bailey and others are overblown. Biologists have relied on her feeding station to capture and rehabilitate injured eagles.
Keene has less food available since Homer lost its major processing plant to a fire. One winter at the peak, more than 600 eagles were counted on the Spit. These days, it's more like 200 to 300. Keene stops feeding in April so that the eagles can disperse to summer feeding grounds.
Bourne, the Washington photographer, said any rule against feeding would be overreaching by intrusive government. He doesn't believe unconfirmed reports of eagles getting hurt.
"My position is that if you ban eagle feeding, you might as well ban all backyard bird feeding," he said.