Biologist Recounts Path to Bald Eagles' Recovery

The Interior Department will take the American bald eagle off the Endangered Species List next month. Biologist Peter Nye has been tracking the bald eagle for more than 30 years. He talks with Melissa Block about how America's bird will fare off the list.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Mr. DIRK KEMPTHORNE (Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior): In one month's time, the bald eagle will officially fly off the endangered species list.

BLOCK: That announcement today from Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, with bald eagle Challenger chiming in at his side. The bald eagle was on the verge of extinction in the contiguous U.S., when it was put on the predecessor to the endangered species list in 1967. Now, there are about 10,000 nesting pairs.

Eagle biologist Peter Nye is head of the Endangered Species Unit with New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation. He's been tracking eagles since 1975, when DDT had taken a huge toll. The pesticide caused eagle eggs to become fragile and break before a baby could hatch. Back then, Nye says, there was just one nesting pair in his entire state.

Mr. PETER NYE (Endangered Species Unit, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation): That was out in our Finger Lakes region in western New York, kind of south of Rochester, New York. And bless our hearts, that pair had tried, they had probably been there for 20 years, at least, that we knew they were there and had been producing young back in the '50s and very early 1960s. And then, I'd guess that probably by about 1964, five was the last time they were actually productive. And then, we watched them for another 10 years or so, even longer. And they weren't productive because of the DDT.

BLOCK: I gather that you started doing something to try to bring the eagle population back, where you would go to Alaska and you'd be doing something called hacking. What's hacking?

Mr. NYE: Well, hacking literally means hand-rearing to independence. And we approach the noted ornothologist at Cornell, Dr. Tom Cade, who helped us design a program to actually release young, nestling eagles into suitable habitats. And in order to get enough eagles that we wanted to actually conduct this release program, we did indeed go to Alaska. In over a 13-year period, we released 198 eagles in different habitats in New York State, which has, today, recreated our eagle population.

BLOCK: How long did it take for you to start seeing a resurgence of the eagle population in New York?

Mr. NYE: That's an excellent question. It happened very slowly initially. You had to reach some kind of a critical mass, where there were enough eagles out in the wilds to actually start finding each other, setting up breeding territories and having young. But our first successful nest from this hacking program came in 1980, four years after we began. And it was approaching slowly until about 1988, when he had 10 nesting pairs producing enough young on their own that we said, that will replace what we're doing in hacking, so we can stop the actual input of young eagles by hacking. And we let the wild birds now take over.

BLOCK: Peter Nye, when you started out and there was that one nesting pair left, I mean, now, when you see so many, has it become anything that's routine for you - you know, sort of anything you take for granted when you see an eagle in a nest or an eagle in flight?

Mr. NYE: No. You know, it really has and even though it's been over 30 years, I just still revel when I'm out in the wild and an adult bald eagle comes out and starts chittering at me. Or, you know, just see one against the powder-blue New York sky is just - is still an amazing, tingling feeling that I get. And it's a kind of a thing you have to really have in your heart to be able to keep doing year after year. And thank goodness, we've had so many dedicated volunteers and people who work for our agency and others that have just kept the fight going for the eagle.

BLOCK: There's a concern now about habitat and habitat that's getting lost to development. Do you think that poses a real threat to the eagles that have come back so strongly?

Mr. NYE: I absolutely do. There's no doubt whatever that we should take a moment and really celebrate and be glad that eagles are where they are today. But after we celebrate for a while, I think we really need to take a very close and serious look at what the future holds. When I'm gone in 2030 or 2040, are those habitats still going to be available for bald eagles? Have we sufficiently protected these wild places? Or are we going to see them start to decline, and then the eagles simply won't have places to live? So, yes, that's an extremely important concern and one that we have to keep in mind.

BLOCK: Well, Peter Nye, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. NYE: You're very welcome.

BLOCK: Peter Nye heads the Endangered Species Unit with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany. By the way, he says there are now 125 nesting eagle pairs in New York.

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