Eagles Soar in Wisconsin Thanks to Endangered Species Act

Here are four good examples of why people seem to love the Endangered Species Act:

the Bald eagle – an enduring symbol of the U.S. of  A.;

the Louisiana Black bear – which long ago provided the inspiration for the toy “teddy bear;”

the magnificent Humpback whale, which can still be found in all the oceans of the world;

and the West Indian manatees, and a subspecies, the Florida manatees, found along the coasts of the southeastern U. S. states, seeking particularly warm water sites in the winter months.

In spite of such conservation successes – which have occurred with the assistance of the Endangered Species Act – that law itself is now in danger. Many of the elected Republican leaders who control the U.S. Congress are eager “to modernize” the law, in ways that its supporters believe will weaken it significantly. Some in Congress propose outright repeal to curb what they see as its abuses. One of them, Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, said the E.S.A. has “been hijacked.”

A Bald eagle, in Wisconsin. (WI DNR photo, by Brian Hansen)

Bishop, who is the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, says in his opinion, the law “. . . has never been used for the rehabilitation of the species. It’s been used to control the land.  We’ve missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act.”   

Is it possible he just doesn’t understand what the law does, or how it helps species survive? Its stated purpose is to “protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems on which they depend.” (Emphasis added.) There is no question that this takes work and dedication from both public servants and  private citizens, alike. But the public’s willingness to support such work, by high margins, has been borne out in repeated polls and surveys over the years. (More about these polls, coming in a future post.)

A manatee cow and her calf. (USFWS photo, by Keith Ramos)

Let’s look at some more facts about those “conservation successes” listed above. Here’s the briefest of histories of the ESA’s benefit to those four species :  The Bald Eagle, the West Indian Manatee, and the Humpback Whale were all declared endangered under the predecessor of the current law: the eagle and manatee in 1967 and the whale in 1970.  The Louisiana Black bear was declared endangered in 1992.

A USFWS employee with an armful of four Louisiana Black bear cubs. (USFWS photo)

The Bald eagle was delisted in 2007 (considered “recovered” from near-extinction), the Louisiana Black bear and the majority of the Humpback Whale species, in 2016.  The West Indian Manatee was proposed for down-listing from “endangered “to “threatened” in 2016; a final decision on this is expected any day.

Now, let’s look a little deeper into the facts surrounding the decline and recovery of one particular species – the Bald Eagle. According to this US Fish & Wildlife Service fact sheet, when America was a new nation there may have been as many as 100,000 nesting pairs of Bald eagles. In 1963 only 487 pairs could be confirmed.

Not long ago the bald eagle, a beloved symbol of America, was an endangered species. (USFWS photo)

When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 the species was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range  (which includes the entire North American continent). But worries about the species’ continued existence were already well-established by 1940 when the The Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the plight of the eagle continued to worsen until Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the dangers of widespread use of the pesticide DDT, and further research revealed that this chemical interfered with eagles’ ability to produce strong eggshells and hatch their young.

In 1972, the two-year old Environmental Protection Agency took the historic and, at that time, controversial step of banning use of DDT in the U.S. With that, and the legal protections that banned shooting and established habitat management for the species, the bald eagles began their “remarkable rebound.”  When the species was delisted in 2007, the number of nesting pairs had climbed to near 10,000.

In Wisconsin, where we now celebrate and support the endangered species within our state by purchasing a special series of endangered resources license plates,there were only 100 nesting pairs of eagles in the early 1970s. By contrast, over 1,000 nests have been counted every year since 2005; the count for 2016, was a record high of 1504. Federal funds, allotted to Wisconsin through the Endangered Species Act, combined with state funds have made it possible for the state to conduct 44 years of nest surveys. Wisconsin’s is one of the longest-running nest surveys in the country.

These involve April aerial surveys of the state to locate nests, return flights in May or June to check on nest success followed by, in some cases, some very hands-on work to band eaglets and do health assessments. Among other benefits, knowledge gained from the survey enables the DNR to give up-to-date information to landowners, companies, and communities that have an active nest on their property, so that the nest remains undisturbed throughout breeding season.

And that is a pretty good picture of The Endangered Species Act at work for eagles:  looking for nests, monitoring the nests once discovered, educating land owners to the presence of an active nest on their property, and educating the general public about the whole process.

In Search of Monarch Butterflies and Waystations

[This is another post in the series, Summer in Wisconsin: Woodlands, Wetlands, Monarchs, and Rocks.” What began as one of several items for a “roundup” of summer notes, has grown into five separate blogposts, published one at a time in this first and second week of August. You can access all the Summer in Wisconsin series by clicking on those words; they are listed among the categories at the end of each post.]

Is This a Better Year for Monarchs?

It’s the height of summer in Wisconsin, and this is the perfect time to look for Monarch butterflies. I plan to visit soon, two special Door County locations that may currently be hosting numerous butterflies (more about these later).

According to my own, completely unscientific survey, Monarchs seem more plentiful this summer – even in small parks and back yards, than in recent summers. My own observations seem to be bolstered anecdotally by others I’ve talked to as well.


Monarch feeding on the swamp milkweed at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. (USFWS photo by Tom Koerner)

Monarch feeding on the swamp milkweed at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. (USFWS photo by Tom Koerner)

However, Julie, the naturalist at the website, LakeLedgeNaturalist.com, cautioned me that when it comes to Monarchs, “the answers always tend to be complex and multifaceted.” And no wonder, when you consider with Monarchs, you are dealing with millions of individual butterflies – big numbers, yet this is a population commonly understood to be in decline.

From the NWF: The “Battle for the Butterflies”

The National Wildlife Foundation is a good source for stories about the plight of the Monarchs, and I found this one, “The Battle for the Butterflies,”  [ http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/2015/Battle-for-Butterflies.aspx ]  from March 30th, this year, to be very helpful. A 2014-15 survey of their winter territory in Mexico, produced a count of over 56 million butterflies, “up 69% from the previous year’s survey, when the insects’ numbers fell to historic lows.”

While that’s welcome news, it is still a low count, according the scientists who study this. “The continent’s monarch population has declined more than 90% from its peak of nearly one billion butterflies in the mid-1990s,” this article states.

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed; this phase in the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly is solely dependent on the Milkweed plant for life. (USFWS photo by Courtney Celley)

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed; this phase in the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly is solely dependent on the Milkweed plant for life. (USFWS photo by Courtney Celley)

There does seem to be a robust and growing response to this threat to the species. One important part of that response, I believe, includes efforts to cultivate Milkweed and the nectar plants required by the Monarch population. Efforts on the part of private citizens, wildlife management professionals, and various public entities have resulted in thousands of such plantings that have come to be known as Monarch Waystations. As of May 31st this year, Monarch Watch, [ http://monarchwatch.org/waystations/ ], a butterfly research program based at the University of Kansas, reports they have registered 10,584 Monarch Waystations.

Where to Look for Monarchs

Efforts to turn the meadow adjacent to the nature center at Peninsula State Park into a Monarch Waystation were described this past November, by Kathleen Harris, naturalist at the park. Providing suitable space for milkweed and other native plants, the meadow is a positive response for Monarchs, Harris wrote in the Peninsula Pulse  [ http://www.ppulse.com/Articles-Outside-in-Door-c-2014-11-05-118683.114136-For-the-Love-of-Monarchs.html ], adding, “In addition to planting diverse native species, park staff and volunteers have also removed unwanted plants.”

A milkweed planting by Swallowtail Garden Seeds.

A milkweed planting by Swallowtail Garden Seeds  [https://www.flickr.com/photos/swallowtailgardenseeds/15615830469/in/dateposted/ ]

In addition to visiting the meadow at the nature center, and hoping to photograph Monarchs, I also plan to visit Bayshore Blufflands Nature Preserve, a property of the Door County Land Trust. Early in July, the Land Trust posted on their Facebook page, that Bayshore Blufflands had become “a Monarch haven! Fields are filled with Milkweed and buds that are just beginning to bloom . . . You can clearly see where caterpillars have been munching on leaves . . .”

The public can visit Bayshore Blufflands preserve at any time. You can find it at 5454 Bayshore Drive, 10 miles north of Sturgeon Bay.


Meet the Partners for Whooping Cranes

“It takes a village . . . , ” we often say, using those words to describe any complex project whether it’s raising a child, or building a house, or creating a new community organization. Or something else entirely.


When it comes to the efforts to restore an endangered species to a region from which it has long been absent, it takes a world of professionals and volunteers willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve the goal. In the case of the whooping cranes that are now being re-introduced into Wisconsin that “world” is made up of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a true partnership between public and private entities working to protect the whooping crane species.

Over the years people have opened their homes to others who are working directly with the cranes. Private individuals and entire businesses have opened their wallets. And it seems everyone who learns of them, has opened their hearts to the whoopers and their story of survival.

On it’s Who We Are webpage, WCEP lists literally dozens of private individuals, organizations and corporations, as well as a myriad of government agencies, as partners and supporters of this effort. A list of the nine original WCEP partners, and a minimalist description of each follows:

International Whooping Crane Recovery Team – This is the governing body charged with responsibility for the species, and comprised of 5 scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and 5 from the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Private, Non-profit Organizations

International Crane Foundation – Founded in 1973 in Baraboo, WI, the ICF is dedicated to the conservation of all of the world’s 15 crane species, and preservation of their habitat.

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation – Established by Congress in 1984, NFWF is one of the world’s largest conservation grant-makers, having raised more than $1.4 billion in private contributions and grantee matching funds.

Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin – A non-profit organization based in Madison, WI, the foundation boosts private sector investment and involvement in Wisconsin’s natural resources.

Operation Migration – Every year since 2001, OM has imprinted a new generation of whooping crane chicks on its ultralight aircraft, and then led them from Wisconsin to Florida on their first migration.

Government Agencies

US Fish & Wildlife Service – This bureau within the U.S. Department of Interior, is charged with conservation and management of the nation’s fish and wildlife resources, and the protection of endangered species.

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey – Located in Laurel, MD., Patuxent raises about 2/3 of all whooping cranes raised for release to the wild, and provides research and logistical support for the Wisconsin release.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center – Founded in 1975, the NWHC, located in Madison, WI, is a biomedical laboratory dedicated to assessing the impact of disease on wildlife.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – Wisconsin was the first state to officially partner with the WCRT and the USFWS in an effort to establish an eastern migrating population of whooping cranes, and has also supplied much of the environmental data used to assess the suitability of the Wisconsin sites for the cranes’ release.

You can read a more detailed description of the WCEP partners here, or visit each partner’s own website for information in-depth.