July 9, 2008

Conservation Gives Eagles New Wings

By John McCoy

MOOREFIELD - West Virginia has experienced quite a few environmental success stories since the early 1970s.

Whole forests once cleared for timber have regenerated. The woods are full of deer. Black bears are more abundant than ever. The Kanawha and Ohio rivers have been cleaned up. Paddlefish and sturgeon have been reintroduced. Hatcheries grow walleye and muskellunge that are better adapted to West Virginia's waters.

Still, none of those stir West Virginians' pride quite as much as the success story that has taken wing in the South Branch Valley. Deep in the rugged canyon known as The Trough, the state's largest population of bald eagles thrives in majestic solitude.

Last Monday night, I took a train ride through The Trough and saw seven of the magnificent birds. On a similar ride last year I also saw seven.

Let's put that in perspective. My generation grew up in an era when bald eagles were gravely endangered. The pesticide DDT caused the birds to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke before they could incubate. Populations plunged.

Federal officials eventually banned DDT in the United States. Eagle populations stabilized and eventually began to rebuild.

But by the time the DDT ban took place, few if any eagles remained in the Mountain State. Biologists got all a-twitter in the early 1980s when they discovered a mating pair in The Trough.

Those two eagles apparently liked what they found there - trees large enough to hold their massive nests, a river full of fish, and a refreshing scarcity of people. The birds not only survived, they thrived.

Eagles have been seen in other parts of the state, too. In the late 1980s I watched two immature eagles perform an aerial talon- locking display in the skies over Cabell County's Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area. In the 1990s a mature bird flew over as I deer hunted near New Era in Jackson County. A couple of years ago I watched a pair soar over the New River near Bluestone Dam.

I've seen bald eagles in Florida, in Pennsylvania, in Kentucky, in Montana and in Alaska. Only in Alaska (where they were so abundant we began calling them "Alaskan sparrows") did I see more than I've seen during two trips through The Trough.

Nationwide, bald eagles are doing so well that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed them from its list of endangered and threatened species. The Eagle Protection Act, which imposes fines of up to $250,000 for people who kill eagles, remains a powerful deterrent to those who might wish to harm the birds.

Still, it's highly unlikely that bald eagles will ever become common in the Mountain State. Generations of painstaking wildlife management have given us a deer herd that numbers nearly a million and a black bear population well in excess of 10,000. Not even the most elaborate management efforts could give us a comparable population density of eagles.

The great birds' habitat requirements are too exacting. They need large rivers or lakes that contain fish, their staple food. More than anything else, though, they need solitude. West Virginia is wild, but most of it isn't quite wild enough to give eagles the elbow room they need.

They'd probably do well enough in the New River Gorge's more remote sections. Parts of the Gauley and Meadow River canyons might be suitable, too.

As many eagles as those areas might grow, though, they'd likely never match the phenomenal numbers found in that is The Trough - which is, and likely will remain, West Virginia's premier environmental success.

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