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.

Whooping Crane News from Near and Far

From Washington, D.C. to far northern Canada to Wisconsin’s fields and wetlands, here’s news about whooping cranes from all over. Beginning with the far away:

In Canada

Friends of the Wild Whoopers has a new post about nesting season for the whoopers of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, which occurs later than ours in Wisconsin. These whoopers, migrate much further than the ones that return to Wisconsin every March and April. They complete their 2,500 journey from Texas to far northern Alberta in late April and early May.

There are about 300 individual cranes in the population, which has very slowly climbed back to this number from an all time low of only 16 birds in the winter of 1941-42. Their numbers today – still solidly in the “endangered” category – are yet so encouraging! Always important to remember: the AWB flock is the only surviving original flock of wild whooping cranes, and thus, the sole source of all the whooping cranes in the world today. That is around 600 birds, including those in the wild and in captivity.

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada where the only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer.  (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada where the only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer. (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

But about the flock’s current nesting season: 68 nests were counted in an aerial survey conducted at the Wood Buffalo National Park over four days near the end of May, Friends of the Wild Whoopers reports. It will be August before there is a follow up survey that reports the number of surviving chicks. Certainly a good number of surviving chicks can be hoped for from 68 nests!

While this certainly sounds like a good number of nesting cranes, this is not a record. Friends of the Wild Whoopers reported there were a record-breaking season last summer – 82 nests; before that the record was 76 nests in 2011. FOTWW reports that drought in the region may be a contributing factor to lower numbers this year.

At the U.S. Supreme Court

An appeal of “the whooping crane case” which put fresh water rights for endangered species on trial in Texas will not be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal district court in Houston had earlier found that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was responsible for the deaths of 23 endangered whooping cranes in drought-stricken Texas during 2008 and ’09 – and thus, was in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Last year the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans threw out the lower court’s 2013 decision.

Now the Supreme Court has declined to reconsider the case, but Dr. Richard Beilfuss, president of the International Crane Foundation, praised “the multi-year legal process” for helping to bring the issues surrounding “a healthy coastal ecosystem for both Whooping Cranes and people” to many in Texas and throughout the nation. While expressing his disappointment, Dr. Beilfuss, ICF president and a water management specialist, said “we remain steadfast in our commitment to safeguard the future of the Whooping Crane and address their irrefutable need for clean water.”

In Congress: the Endangered Species Act Could Be at Risk

The Endangered Species Act, which is certainly a most important U.S. law for the survival of the whooping crane was recently called “the most powerful environmental law on earth,” by Dr. Chritina Eisenberg, the lead scientist for Earthwatch Institute. Despite that – or maybe because of it – the ESA now faces “the gravest assault it has ever faced,” from the Republican-led U.S. Congress.

Not long ago the bald eagle, a beloved symbol of America, was an endangered species. The bald eagle was removed from Wisconsin's endangered list in 1997, and from the federal list in 2007. (USFWS photo)

Not long ago – due to habitat loss and use of DDT – the bald eagle, a beloved symbol of America, was an endangered species. The bald eagle was removed from Wisconsin’s endangered list in 1997, and from the federal list in 2007. (USFWS photo)

Blogging at the Huffington Post, Dr. Eisenberg named seven separate Senate bills aimed at “reforming” the ESA, and 3 House of Representative bills that would remove protection from gray wolves. In addition she warns that “myriad insidious riders have been attached to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016, which was recently passed by the House of Representatives. She described it as a 934 page document with riders “literally buried in the bill,” including one that would halt recovery efforts for the sea otter, and many that also threaten other benchmark environmental laws.

Overall she described this as “a smoothy orchestrated effort to gut the ESA . . .We’ve made enormous national conservation policy inroads since the 1940s,” she writes, “but we risk losing all we have gained.”

And In Wisconsin: a Whoophill

It has happened before, but this is a first for the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes: a male whooping crane and female sandhill crane have mated and produced a chick. This is the first successful nesting activity of any whooping crane in the vicinity of Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, and the hybrid chick and its blended family is a great curiosity for all craniacs.

The chick is officially known as a Whoophill, and has unofficially been given the oh-so-cute name of “Whoopsie.” You can learn more about “Whoopsie” from the International Crane Foundation which has explained that such pairing of two different species happens routinely among various species in the wild, but is “still a rare event overall.” And do visit Operation Migration to see some great pictures of this successful family – in particular, the very attentive whooper dad.