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Eagle population continues to rise

Ken George / staff photoAmerican bald eagles, like this one on Whidbey, are showing a consistent increase in population, which is expected to lead to removal from federal and state endangered species lists. - Ken George/ Whidbey News-Times
Ken George / staff photoAmerican bald eagles, like this one on Whidbey, are showing a consistent increase in population, which is expected to lead to removal from federal and state endangered species lists.
— image credit: Ken George/ Whidbey News-Times

Whidbey Island’s eagles soar, dive, preen and eat as always, unaware that their legal status may be about to change.

Soon the federal government is expected to remove the bald eagle from the list of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. It remains protected from hunting by other federal laws.

When the federal action occurs, Washington state also is likely to reclassify the bald eagle, changing it on the state list from Threatened to Sensitive.

What does this mean to our national symbol as it flies over Whidbey Island?

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 last week.

In 1980 there were 103 bald eagle nests in the entire state. The most recent count, in 1998, put the number at 650 active nests.

Since eagles were protected and the use of the chemical DDT banned, the eagle population nationwide has been increasing by 10 percent annually, Stinson said.

In Island County, there are now 70 eagle territories, each home to a pair of eagles. In this state, only San Juan and Clallam counties have more eagles than Island.

"Things certainly have improved in the last 20 years," Stinson said.

He said present protections will stay in place even as the bald eagle gets a new status, 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. There are also 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. 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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