Printed on: January 17, 2013

Bald eagle population soars

Raptor numbers come in at third highest on record in Upper Salmon River basin

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON -- In a sign the bald eagle has soared back from near extinction in the Upper Salmon River basin, a survey by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game on Friday shows a bald eagle tally of 169, the third highest count on record.

Beth Waterbury, regional wildlife biologist in the Fish and Game office in Salmon, said the annual midwinter count -- instituted nationwide in 1979 to track population trends among the once dwindling raptors -- showed significant "shuffling" of bald eagles within a survey area that stretches from the Sawtooth Valley downstream to the Corn Creek boat ramp, which is downstream of the confluence of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Eagles this year were concentrated from Challis to Ellis, a change from recent years in which the Pahsimeroi Valley showed the highest densities, Waterbury said.

The shift is likely tied to access to food, including suckers and muskrats, in stretches of river that have less ice than other stretches, Waterbury said.

Eagles also relocate in the colder months according to changes in the population cycles of other prey, such as jack rabbits.

Favored sites among the 169 -- with the bulk, or 66 percent, adults -- included the Salmon and Challis landfills. Roughly 50 eagles were sighted at the Challis dump.

"Our regal eagle is known in some circles as the 'white-headed buzzard' for its opportunistic diet, especially in winter," Waterbury said.

The national bird was removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list in 2007 after decades of protections designed to bring the birds back from the edge of extinction. The chief cause of plummeting bald eagle populations was the pesticide DDT, which was banned in 1972.

Nationwide, breeding pairs have climbed from 417 in 1963 to an estimated 9,700 today.

Biologists counted a dozen bald eagles in the Upper Salmon River basin in surveys more than three decades ago. That compares with a record 192 birds tallied during last year's count.

"It's a pretty dramatic increase and good evidence of recovered populations," Waterbury said.

Revered today as a symbol of patriotism, bald eagles were not always held in high esteem. The birds were shot at random and their nesting trees logged until declining populations prompted Congress in 1940 to approve early protections. Eagles still are safeguarded by such laws as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

And their press has improved with time and study.

"There was once a perception that bald eagles were a predatory species and they were pretty routinely persecuted. These days, people are more likely to express admiration than animosity," Waterbury said.