By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
At the turn of the 21st Century, no bald eagles nested in Vermont. In 2020, the state recorded 41 pairs.
Biologists have been working to reintroduce the iconic birds in the state for around a decade — and have succeeded. The result: Bald eagles are likely to be removed from Vermont’s endangered species list, said Jim Shallow, director of strategic conservation initiatives at The Nature Conservancy.
The bald eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782 and long before that was a spiritual symbol for Indigenous people.
Shallow is also on the Endangered Species Committee in Vermont’s Fish & Wildlife Dept., which voted unanimously in December to lift the designation. The Vermont Legislature is expected to make the move official this summer.
“It shows that if we, as a society, make the decision to focus on a conservation outcome, we can do it,” Shallow said. “That message is so important, even more so when we’re seeing a biodiversity crisis globally.”
Bald eagles benefit from federal protection that will remain in place after the eagles are delisted in the state. Nationally, they’re protected by the Lacey Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act, all of which protect the birds from being trapped, hunted or approached by people, among other things.
“It’s really about recognizing that we have a healthy population that seems to be doing well, and may not need quite as much of an effort on our part to monitor and protect, although there’s no indication that we will do any less than we’re doing now,” said Margaret Fowle, a conservation biologist with Audubon Vermont.
Continued threats to the eagle include habitat loss as well as disruptions and pollution in rivers and streams where eagles typically hunt. The impacts of climate change could also affect eagles: Swings in precipitation already affect waterways, and wind from increased, harsher storms could fell the trees where eagles nest.
Scientists hope to develop a system that will help them monitor eagles long term, said Allan Strong, a professor of wildlife and ornithology at the University of Vermont who chairs the Endangered Species Committee.
The bald eagle is one of more than a hundred endangered and threatened species in Vermont. It was considered nationally endangered in 1972, and Vermont also accepted the “endangered” designation then, even though the state didn’t pass an official endangered species law for nine more years.
The pesticide DDT, used to control insects such as mosquitoes, was principally behind the bald eagles’ population decline, along with habitat destruction and illegal hunting of the birds. DDT washed into waterways, where it contaminated the fish ingested by eagles and other birds. As a result, they lost their ability to produce strong eggshells, prompting a sharp decline in the number of hatchlings.
While the record of eagle sightings in Vermont is limited, a report from 1842 said eagles were “frequently seen in Vermont, but not known to breed in the state.” A little more than a century later, in 1948, a nesting pair was spotted near Lake Bomoseen. After that, eagles didn’t appear to be established in Vermont until 2006.
At the end of the 2020 nesting season, biologists recorded 38 breeding pairs around the state, along with three territorial pairs, according to the motion to delist the eagles. Twelve additional pairs were spotted in New Hampshire and New York along waterways that border Vermont.
But the resurgence hasn’t come without losses, according to the motion. Eagles have suffered from the loss of trees where their nests are located, and three breeding birds were hit by cars.
Despite that, the birds continue to rebound.
“The population is showing resiliency to these isolated events. That’s a really important thing that we look for in recovering populations,” Shallow said. “Can they kind of self-regulate and self-heal after a disturbance?”
The delisting process involves an upcoming public comment period before the Legislature approves the designation’s removal, Strong said. He’s confident it will happen, as the species has exceeded the necessary criteria.
He said the Endangered Species Committee uses a general rule of thumb to define threatened and endangered species, which fluctuates depending on various factors. Typically, when there are fewer than 300 members of a species statewide that are able to reproduce, that species could be considered “threatened.” When a species reaches fewer than 100 members that are able to reproduce, it could be considered “endangered.”
The committee considered moving eagles to the list of threatened species but decided against it.
“By the time we got the paperwork ready, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s actually met the criteria to delist’,” Strong said. “And it doesn’t really seem like the population growth is going to slow down.”
Fowle, who has long been working on the reintroduction effort, said the fact that eagles now seem to be a permanent part of Vermont is worth celebrating.
“I’ve been in Vermont since the mid-’90s, and we almost never saw eagles then. It’s a pretty regular thing to see eagles now,” she said. “It’s a great feeling that we’ve really got this population here that’s part of our landscape.”