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As eagles soar, status changes

While our national symbol may be classified as threatened rather than endangered, eagles are not expected to be harmed. The reclassification simply means the powerful birds are doing better. - Ken George
While our national symbol may be classified as threatened rather than endangered, eagles are not expected to be harmed. The reclassification simply means the powerful birds are doing better.
— image credit: Ken George

Eagle information

The Washington State Department of Wildlife has set a 30-day public review period for the final status report and listing recommendation to change the protective status of bald eagles in the state. The period began Oct. 22 and comments must be received by Nov. 22. Documents may be reviewed on the agency’s website at www.wa.gov/wdfw/.

Whidbey Island’s eagle soar, dive, preen and eat, never giving a thought to the fact their status may be changing.

The federal government is expected to soon “de-list” bald eagles from the Endangered Species Act’s list of endangered species.

When that happens, Washington state will likely reclassify the bald eagle from “threatened” to “sensitive.”

What does this mean to the our national symbol as it flies high over Penn Cove, Crescent Harbor and all the other areas of Whidbey Island it inhabits?

Not a lot, according to Derek Stinson, an endangered species biologist with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“This is just to recognize the fact they’re doing a lot better,” Stinson said Wednesday. In 1980 there were only 103 bald eagle nests in the entire state. The most recent count, in 1998, put the number at 650 active eagle nests.

Since eagles were protected and the use of the chemical DDT banned, the eagle population nationally has been increasing by 10 percent annually, Stinson said. In Island County, there are today 70 eagle territories, each comprising a pair of eagles. In this state, only San Juan and Clallam counties have more eagles. “Things certainly have improved in the last 20 years,” Stinson said.

Although the bald eagle’s status in the eyes of government is changing, Stinson said present protections will stay in place, although some rules may change. Eagles are not necessarily out of danger, however. Stinson said development, particularly the removal of tall trees, continues along the state’s shorelines, and there are concerns about other types of habitat loss as well as worries about food supply.

This is a good year for salmon, and on Whidbey Island healthy eagles are already coming home from a fall of feasting on salmon in British Columbia. There are plenty of salmon here, as well. Stinson said eagles also dine on gulls and other seabirds, various kinds of fish and shellfish, rabbits, possums and even crows. The major long-term concerns are the fluctuating salmon supply and an apparent long-term decline in the number of seabirds.

But for now, the eagle population is healthy. In fact, it may be at the saturation point. Eagles are moving into areas they’ve never lived before. “They’re in the suburbs,” Stinson said. “It shocks a lot of us. The better habitats are occupied.”

Fish and Wildlife plans to change the bald eagle’s status from “threatened” to “sensitive” once the federal government de-lists the species. When that happens, Stinson said, biologists will give more attention to other, more threatened species in the state. Among those are the pygmy rabbit, pocket gopher, sharptail grouse, sage grouse and marbled murrelet.

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