Fish are what brought eagles to basin |

Fish are what brought eagles to basin

Andy Bourelle

Bald eagles are here – and not just for the winter.

Since the U.S. Forest Service started participating in the annual Lake Tahoe Basin Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey, the number of bald eagles counted have ranged from 2 to 20.

However, the bald eagles were wintering in Lake Tahoe from locations, such as British Columbia and Alaska. There has been no evidence of nesting bald eagles in Lake Tahoe since the early 1970s – until recent years.

Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit officials know at least one pair of bald eagles has nested on the West Shore in 1997 and 1998.

“We hope to keep them,” said Kevin Laves, wildlife biologist for the LTBMU. “We hope to see more of them.”

The bald eagle, the only eagle unique to North America, has been present historically in the Lake Tahoe Basin, but officials are not sure to what extent. Laves said there are records indicating bald eagles nested at Tahoe in the 1800s, but there is no information showing the birds nested here until the early 1970s. Then, nesting bald eagles disappeared.

While the return of the nesting eagles is a good sign, officials agree, it is hard to speculate their previous numbers in Tahoe.

One reason, according to LTBMU forest wildlife biologist Pat Shanley, is that the types of Lake Tahoe fish – the bald eagle’s primary prey – has changed 90 to 100 percent in the last decade. While the Lahontan cutthroat trout historically populated Lake Tahoe, that population was virtually eliminated from Lake Tahoe in the late 1800s. It wasn’t until fish such as kokanee salmon and Mackinaw trout were being introduced to Lake Tahoe in the mid 1900s that bald eagles would have had a major source of food again.

“It would be very difficult to surmise how (bald eagle populations have) changed in Lake Tahoe,” Shanley said.

One thing is certain, though. Overall populations of bald eagles are up – at least from earlier this decade.

Wildlife experts believe there may have been 25,000 to 75,000 nesting bald eagles in the lower 48 states when the bird was adopted as the national symbol in 1782, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After suffering from habitat destruction, direct killing and contamination of food sources, most notably from the pesticide DDT, there were fewer than 450 bald eagle nesting pairs in the lower 48 states by the early 1960s.

In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which made it illegal to kill, harass, possess without a permit or sell bald eagles. In 1967, bald eagles were officially declared an endangered species under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1976.

With a variety of recovery methods used, habitat improvement projects and the banning of DDT, bald eagle populations have steadily increased. There are now nearly 4,500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Earlier in the 1990s, the bald eagle’s classification on the federal endangered species list moved from endangered to threatened.

While it is difficult to judge whether Lake Tahoe populations are improving, officials agree that the repopulating of bald eagles is apparent in the area.

In addition to the nesting pairs in Lake Tahoe, Shanley said, bald eagles are reproducing at Topaz and Heenan lakes. A pair of bald eagles nested at Lake Lahontan in 1998, the first evidence of nesting bald eagles in Nevada in decades.

“In addition to the states who used to have a lot of bald eagles getting more, states that haven’t had bald eagles for a very long time are starting to get some,” Laves said.

“It’s certainly good to see,” Shanley said. “I think they would have to be considered among the great success stories in terms of bouncing back from perilous numbers.”

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