No longer endangered, bald eagles must now fight development for bay habitat

July 03, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

The newlyweds, a pair of bald eagles, found a dream house for the 1994 nesting season: a tall tree on the southern tip of Kent Island with a breathtaking view of the Chesapeake Bay.

No sooner had the female settled down on her eggs when -- there goes the neighborhood! A construction crew began clearing land for a new house barely 100 yards away, part of a residential development planned for years.

Bald eagles have flown back from the brink of extinction, as federal wildlife officials announced last week. But eagle experts in Maryland and Virginia fear that the recovery could be short-lived around the bay because the birds face such stiff competition from humans for waterfront real estate.

"The No. 1 threat to bald eagles in the Chesapeake is shoreline development," said Glenn D. Therres, who has monitored Maryland's eagle population the past decade for the state Department of Natural Resources.

"I do see a crunch coming," agreed Mitchell A. Byrd, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Not next week, certainly, or even in the next few years, they said. Maybe not for a decade, or two or three. But unless development patterns in the bay region change soon, or unless eagle habitat protections are strengthened, the population will level off and begin to decline again.

Such predictions seem at odds with the recovery of eagles in the past 30 years -- a comeback heralded last week when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared its intention to upgrade the bird's status from endangered to threatened.

Wildlife experts say that for the next several years, at least, the outlook remains bright for continued growth of the eagle population around the Chesapeake, already the second-biggest gathering of the birds on the East Coast, behind Florida.

It's even possible that the eagle population around the bay could double over the next 20 or 30 years, to about 1,200 nesting adults, said James Frazer, professor of fisheries and wildlife science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. That would put the number close to what it was in the 1930s.

That is the target set by Dr. Byrd and other biologists for declaring the bald eagle fully recovered in the Chesapeake region and removing it completely from the federal endangered species list. Dr. Byrd is the leader of a team of biologists, which includes Mr. Therres, that is advising the federal government on restoring eagles to historic abundance.

But the bay's growing eagle population is on a long-term collision course with the region's burgeoning human population, because both crave water access. Eagles, even more than people, insist on privacy.

Bald eagles feed on fish whenever they can get them, so most of their nests in the Chesapeake region are less than a mile from open water.

Meanwhile, planners project that in the next 20 years or so, 2.6 million more people will join the nearly 15 million already living in the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed.

National wildlife refuges, such as Blackwater in Dorchester County, have become major havens for the birds. Bald eagles also have gathered on other public lands not specifically managed for wildlife, such as Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. But about 85 percent of the eagle nests in the Chesapeake region are on privately owned land, according to surveys.

Already, there are increasing conflicts between nesting eagles and human activities, according to Dr. Byrd and Mr. Therres.

State and federal wildlife agencies now seek to protect eagle nests on private land, often successfully. In Maryland, the state reports the locations of eagle nests and other endangered species habitats to county planners so developers can be warned. Many developers even check directly with state wildlife biologists.

Federal guidelines call for setting a quarter-mile buffer zone around each eagle nest, with no timber-cutting, land-clearing or construction allowed at any time within 330 feet.

Studies of interactions in Maryland and Virginia indicate that human activity should be kept 750 feet from a nest when eagles are hatching their young, Mr. Therres said.

Maryland's Critical Area law restricts development within 1,000 feet of the bay and tidal waters of its rivers, where three-fourths of eagle nests in the state are now found.

But with a growing eagle population, new nests are built every year, and eagles don't check first with local planners about development.

Eagles sometimes will put up with houses and other human activity closer to their nests. Eagles have maintained a nest for the past five years on the edge of a former farm field outside Salisbury that is now sprouting houses -- the closest one about 350 feet away.

But such togetherness with humans is still the exception, Mr. Therres said.

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