Bald eagle making Lower 48, Tahoe comeback
From a lookout platform near Taylor Creek, two large raptors rest on skeleton-like tree limbs that seem as though they shouldn’t support the weight of the brown-bodied, white-headed birds.
But the bald eagles sit there, and even from a distance viewers can discern their surprising size and their wild beauty.
Then something – who knows what – startles the 3-foot-long raptors. With a series of long, powerful buffets of their long wings, the eagles take off toward Emerald Bay and disappear against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains.
This is a scene patient wildlife watchers can witness in the Lake Tahoe Basin. On Jan. 13, 20 viewers around the basin counted eight bald eagles. Since the Forest Service has participated in the nationwide annual midwinter bald eagle count, that number has been as high as 20.
It wasn’t always like that, however. When the bald eagle was federally listed as endangered in 1963, less than 450 bald eagle pairs were living in the lower 48 states. Today that number exceeds 5,700, and Tahoe’s unit of the Forest Service is embarking on an effort that may increase bald eagle numbers in the region.
Mollie Hurt, wildlife biologist, has been working on a bald eagle management plan for the Tahoe Basin for several months.
“I think (the plan) is going to be a great thing,” Hurt said. “I believe we’re really lucky we have bald eagles in the wintertime, and now we have them in the summer, too.”
The plan, required by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, will compile information that already exists about Tahoe’s eagles into one plan as well as make management recommendations.
While numerous visitors swarm to summer events near the wilderness area at Taylor Creek, Hurt said the plan probably won’t impact event hosts, which include Camp Richardson Resort, Tallac Historic Site and the Visitors Center. Instead, the proposals will focus on eagle habitat and how to preserve it.
“It will be preventative instead of reactionary,” Hurt said.
In 1986 Fish and Wildlife required all Forest Service agencies dealing with bald eagles to establish similar plans, and management documents exist for places such as Shasta and Honey lakes. Tahoe’s unit of the Forest Service never did the work.
“I’m not sure why it wasn’t done,” said Hurt, who has been working on the plan since coming to Tahoe in July 1999. “But U.S. Fish and Wildlife said they were going to put their foot down, saying, ‘We’re not going to concur with your plans or agree with your plans until you do this.'”
The plan should be ready in the spring and likely implemented by fall – just in time for when the federal government may remove bald eagles from the list of endangered species.
So why do all the work to come up with a management plan?
Easy, Hurt says: to continue to protect the birds and make sure their presence doesn’t again become scarce.
“One of the reasons the bald eagles have recovered is because of these management plans,” Hurt said.
Male bald eagles usually weigh between 7 and 10 pounds and have wingspans up to 6 1/2 feet. Females are larger and can reach 14 pounds with wingspans of 14 feet.
The distinctive birds, with pale eyes, yellow beaks and bright white head and tail feathers, once lived in every state in the country except Hawaii. As many as 100,000 bald eagles lived in the lower 48 states when the bird was adopted as the national symbol in 1782. After suffering from habitat destruction, direct killing and contamination of food sources, most notably from the pesticide DDT, those numbers decreased incredibly.
Tahoe has participated in the annual bald eagle count since the program’s inception in 1979. Two of the raptors were counted the first year.
The eight counted this year is a similar number to recent years: 12 were counted last year and seven in 1998.
“The eagles that were sighted were flying across parts of the lake. One of the eagles was actually foraging,” said Maureen Gaffney, the Forest Service wildlife biologist who coordinated the survey. “It’s pretty comparable to last year’s results.”
The annual survey is not intended to be an exact count of every eagle, but it is supposed to signify population trends. During a targeted two-week period, observers in participating areas select a single day to count the eagles. Reports from the states are combined to give a picture of bald eagle populations nationwide.
While bald eagles probably lived at Tahoe year-round decades ago, the basin’s birds now are mostly just wintering here. The bald eagles likely nest in northern areas with harsh winters, such as Alaska and British Columbia, and migrate south, looking to winter at large bodies of open water, such as Lake Tahoe. In recent years, however, bald eagles are increasingly seen in the summer.
“We’re really lucky to get to see bald eagles every day,” Hurt said. “When you see them every day, you may take them for granted, but several years ago we probably weren’t so lucky.”
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