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From the Pen of Robert L. Cook

I was 30 years old when I saw my first bald eagle, so I was interested to read recently that the bald eagle was going to be “de-listed,” taken off the endangered species list. This is an amazing accomplishment for all North Americans. Originally protected in 1940 by the U.S. Congress from shooting and harassment and further protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1969, the bald eagle, our national symbol, had become a very rare visitor to the U.S. for much of the 20th century. Growing up in north-central Texas in the ’50s and ’60s, we heard that there were still a few bald eagles “up north in Canada and Alaska,” but none in Texas.

However, in the winter of 1973-74, a group of wildlife biologists (including yours truly) were trapping and banding mallards on Lake Proctor (near Comanche) as part of a study on waterfowl migration patterns and mallard populations. It was a cold, hard winter. Most of the stock tanks were frozen solid, and Proctor was literally covered with mallards. We were catching, banding and releasing ducks by the dozens at night from swim-in traps that we had to break the ice to get to, and at day-break with cannon nets baited with shelled corn on the edge of the icy lake. At midday, we would go back to our tent camp located just off the lake shore, eat a bite of camp stew thanks to Game Warden Billy Works, and rest up for the next greenhead go-round.

One cold, clear day I was lying on my sleeping mat out by the fire when I saw what I thought was a black vulture effortlessly soaring high above our camp and the lake. Then rather suddenly the “buzzard” flapped its wings several beats and dove almost straight down and out of sight. I jumped up, called to the other guys in camp, and we all grabbed our binoculars. Almost immediately, the large dark bird reappeared and we all stared in disbelief at the pure white head and tail. We were all experienced wildlife biologists, all born and raised in Texas, and all astonished at the sighting. There just weren’t supposed to be bald eagles in central Texas.

In the early ’80s, we were pleasantly surprised to have a group of 10 to 12 bald eagles take up winter roost on the headwaters of the Guadalupe River in Kerr County, and return there annually to feed on waterfowl, fish and wild turkeys. In 1981, Texas Parks and Wildlife began annual aerial surveys to monitor bald eagle nesting activity in Texas. The 2005 survey identified 160 active nests, which fledged at least 204 young eagles.

Initially the eagle’s decline was blamed on habitat loss, shooting by ranchers and hunters, and human disturbance — all of these factors may have contributed somewhat to the problem. It is always convenient and often fashionable to blame hunters or ranchers for a species’ demise, isn’t it? However, we now know that environmental contaminants were the main cause of declining eagle populations. Beginning in 1947, eagle nesting and reproductive success declined sharply, coinciding directly with the first extensive use of a new insecticide, DDT. As these insecticides entered watersheds, they were stored in the fatty tissues of fish and waterfowl, the eagle’s primary food source. The result was fewer eggs and thin eggshells that broke during incubation. Although the decision was controversial and is still argued by some, DDT was banned in 1972. Today, bald eagles are producing chicks at normal rates, as are our brown pelicans, osprey and peregrine falcons, which suffered similar declines over the same time period. Habitat loss and human disturbance lead the list of concerns today.

Conservation decisions are often difficult and controversial. Be part of the process. Get involved. Get outdoors. By the way, when was the last time you saw a box turtle or a horned lizard?

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