Birds Ablaze

By Hannah L. Robbins
BU News Service

Once I saw a bald eagle burst into flames. I was in Neah Bay, a town on the Makah Indian Reservation nestled in the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington watching the bird swoop down over the marina, a two-foot-long flat fish dangling from its talons. As the bird abandoned the water and flew over the street, the flopping fish touched a live power line. A jolt of electricity traveled up the fish to the bird and stopped it midflight. Red flames instantly engulfed its body, and the bird dropped to the street below.

When I relayed the story to a local contact, his eyes grew wide and his expression somber. “This is a serious thing,” he said to me. “This bird has allowed you to witness its death. We need to get some drums, and some face paint. We must honor this moment with a ceremony.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Naw. I’m just messing with you. Those damn things are everywhere.”

Image Credit: Ron Peterson
Image Credit: Ron Peterson

By sheer numbers alone, bald eagles are taking over Washington’s seas and skies– a trend facilitated by their federally protected status. Conservationists hail the bald eagle’s recovery as a success story for the Endangered Species Act. Yet some fear an ecological backlash. As bald eagle populations continue to grow, they threaten to disrupt the tenuous ecological balances that characterize sensitive communities.  There is little conservationists can do, however, because of the eagles protected status. The bald eagle conundrum exposes weaknesses in current policy and poses new challenges to conservationists.

The history of bald eagles on the Olympic Peninsula is well-known among Washingtonians. Since moving to the western edge of the peninsula in the early 1900s, logging companies have targeted old growth trees like Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. Bald eagles often make homes of these trees, where they can construct nests weighing more than 1,000 pounds in the strong, sturdy branches.

In addition to cutting down vital habitat, logging companies sprayed DDT throughout the forests to prevent insects from infesting the wood. The chemical blocks calcium absorption, making egg shells weak—too weak, in some cases, to support a developing embryo. The pesticide wreaked havoc on bald eagle populations throughout the US in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1963, only 417 breeding pairs of bald eagles remained in the lower 48 states.

In response to that destruction, the US Government took action, banning DDT in 1972, and protecting the eagle and its habitat as part of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). State governments took action as well and all but five of the contiguous US states put bald eagles on their state endangered species list. Washington listed the bald eagle as “threatened.” The ESA protects threatened species- those that are likely to become endangered-in the same way it protects endangered species. The bald eagle’s populations began to rise; and when its population neared 20,000 breeding birds in 2007, the US Department of Fish and Wildlife removed it from the endangered species list.

The rising number of bald eagles tugs hard on the Pacific Northwest’s ecological web. Having a greater number of apex predators creates additional stress for prey populations. Shorebirds like common murres, rhinoceros auklets, and cormorants are particularly vulnerable in the Pacific Northwest ecological web because their populations are already declining due to habitat loss, gill netting and pollution. Bald eagle predation adds one more weight to their already weakened thread.

Perhaps more troubling, is the devastation bald eagles do to nesting communities. Bald eagles have run rampant on Washington’s Protection Island, a National Wildlife Refuge set aside in 1982 specifically to protect seabirds. When bald eagles first arrived to the island, they flew over the cormorant colony, swooped down and took the young out of the nests. Sometimes they would even attack adults.


Image Credit: Kevin White and the National Park Service.
Image Credit: Kevin White and the National Park Service.

“They are like big bullies” said Dr. Jim Hayward of Andrews University, who studies seabirds on Protection Island. Hayward noticed that over the years, bald eagles gradually took over cormorant nesting sites. Eventually the cormorants left the island. Now fifty to sixty abandoned nests remain, vestiges of a once vibrant seabird community.

On Tatoosh Island, just off the northwestern tip of Washington state, the sight of a bald eagle can induce panic among common murres, another local seabird. When bald eagles fly over nesting sites, the murres take to the air for safety, leaving their unguarded eggs vulnerable to other aerial predators like gulls and crows.

This threat is not unique to the Pacific Northwest. In Maine, which boasts the greatest density of bald eagles in the northeast, the birds prey on baby cormorants, gulls, loons, and great blue herons.

While the Endangered Species Act has brought back important species from the brink of extinction (grizzly bears, whooping crane, gray whale, and gray wolf to name a few), it has its weaknesses. Zeroing in on one species can have consequences that reverberate throughout the ecosystem. The other seabirds, for example, are collateral damage of conservation efforts that focus on meeting the environmental needs of one species, the bald eagle. As such, this approach may not be the best moving forward.

The single-species conservation approach is a relic of 1960s science. Back then, science giants like Robert T. Paine studied the effect one species would have on an entire ecosystem. Paine, for example, plucked sea stars from rocks, tossed them to the ocean, and watched biodiversity decline in areas where the sea stars were absent- from this study Paine coined the term “keystone species.” Such was the scientific mindset around the time when congress enacted the Endangered Species Act, originally the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, (consequently, 1966 was the year Paine published his findings from his sea star experiment). Yet, science has evolved.

An Ochre Sea Star. Image credit: NOAA
An Ochre Sea Star. Image credit: NOAA

“There was a growing understanding in the science community that the species by species approach is ultimately insufficient and not terribly efficient,” explained Joni Ward, North American Director of Conservation Science for The Nature Conservancy.

Nowadays, ecologists recognize the complex network of interactions not only between many species, but between species and their environments. This, in turn, has influenced how some organizations approach conservation. Rather than focus on one species, they focus on conserving an area or landscape. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has been using this landscape-based approach for 15-20 years. They look at a given region and use science to understand what is there, what should be there, and how that landscape might reasonably change over a given time period. The Nature Conservancy defines its conservation goals within a given area based on that data.

This approach is becoming so widespread that government agencies have moved toward landscape-based models. In the marine world, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls this approach ecosystem-based management.  “The idea of ecosystem-based management is definitely a guiding principle,” said Ed Bowlby, Science Coordinator for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. “All agencies, both state and federal, have totally accepted that, or adopted that, or are going to adopt it.”

The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS), which encompasses over 3,000 square miles of ocean off the northwestern coast of Washington state, including the seaward hunting grounds of bald eagles uses this new approach to conservation. It protects the ecosystems that the eagles rely on. By protecting the ocean ecosystem, OCNMS indirectly protects all seabirds.

While the ideology behind ecosystem-based management is strong, enforcing policy based on it is extremely difficult. The sanctuary is large, about the size as Puerto Rico, and policing the waters would require a fleet of ships that would be both a financial and logistical nightmare. The system is complicated, and Bowlby reiterates the maxim: “There is no easy solution.”

Perhaps that is why we cling to a single-species approach. It is easy to grasp, and people can actually track “success.”

Legislation, like ecosystems, is made up of its own threads. Cultural, ecological and even economic values intertwine in a tapestry of legislative framework. As species like the bald eagle start to have a greater and more devastating impact on their ecosystems, scientists and lawmakers must think of new ways to weave these threads together. For now, their challenge is to untangle the thread without unraveling the entire system.

The Push to Make Wind Farms Less Deadly

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

There is nothing more majestic than an eagle soaring through the sky, but the rise of renewable energy—especially wind energy—is encroaching on their airspace with deadly consequences. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed new permit regulations that would allow wind farms and other renewable energy industries to kill a set number of eagles over a period of 30 years. Previously, the permits only lasted five years. Critics argue the proposed changes weaken protection for eagles in favor of promoting the growth of the renewable energy industry. A final decision is expected before the end of the year.

Wind farms—clusters of turbines 30 stories tall with rotors 180 feet wide—kill more than 573,000 birds annually, including 83,000 predatory birds such as eagles, falcons, and hawks, according to a study published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin. The spinning turbine blades can create wind vortexes up to 170 mph that suck birds into the blades, killing them.

A wind farm in southern California. Photo courtesy of Alex Ferguson, Flicker Creative Commons.
A wind farm in southern California. Photo courtesy of Alex Ferguson, Flicker Creative Commons.

As wind energy continues to be one of the fastest growing energy sectors, thanks to the $1 billion-a-year tax break provided by the government, concerns over bird deaths are becoming more urgent. Last year, turbines at wind farms in California, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, killed at least 27 eagles according to the Associated Press. That figure is substantially underestimated, according to scientists, because wind energy companies are not required to report eagle deaths.

The USFWS hopes to change that and believes the proposed regulations will not only encourage the growth of wind farms, but will also encourage wind farms to be more conservation-minded. Stipulations of the new permit include consultation with the USFWS during design phases, building turbines away from ridge edges to decrease eagle collisions, avoiding the use of structures attractive to eagles for perching such as transmission towers, and implementing advanced conservation practices such as shutting turbines down during the times of day or year when eagles are migrating. “If fatalities were occurring then we would require [wind farms] to implement experimental conservation practices to mitigate the deaths,” said USFWS Biologist and National Raptor Coordinator Brian Millsap. “Once we scientifically show that a measure reduces fatalities, then it would become a formal practice and we would require it as the regulation specifies.”

Some conservationists remain skeptical of the proposed regulations’ scientific rigor. “They need to set up a program that works, which means they need to immediately get started on gathering the data and research to do that,” said Katie Umekubo, a renewable energy attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “There are a lot of data gaps right now that we need to fill,” she said.

However, finding the necessary research funds could prove to be an even bigger challenge.  A portion of the $36,000 per permit fee is intended for research, but that money combined with government funding won’t be enough—at least in this political and fiscal climate, according to Executive Director of the Ornithological Council Ellen Paul. “We are putting a lot of birds at risk. Those turbines will be going for 30 years and all that time people will be hoping to figure out what to do about mortality,” said Paul. “There isn’t enough research money and we don’t know if the research will help us devise meaningful management practices.”

An American bald eagle soars through the sky in one of the many national wildlife refuges in the U.S. Photo Courtesy of  George Gentry, USFWS.
An American bald eagle soars through the sky in one of the many national wildlife refuges in the U.S. Photo courtesy of George Gentry, USFWS.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature removed bald and golden eagles from the list of threatened and endangered species years ago, but the birds are still protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The five-year time-frame allotted by current permits was deemed too short by the USFWS for long-term energy projects to secure funding and other necessary assurances to move forward with construction. No wind farms currently hold permits and only one application is under review—something the USFWS hopes will change under the new guidelines.

Although the proposed permits last for three decades, they would still come with constant and intense oversight. The USFWS would treat the permit as if it were issued in five-year increments, examining data collected on deaths and determining what advanced conservation practices should be applied, Millsap explained. But if turbines continue to kill eagles and operators can’t get it under control, then the USFWS has the right to rescind the permits. Operators would have to decide to cease operation or operate without a permit and risk prosecution if an eagle is killed.

Though the guidelines call for better monitoring, the lack of transparency is troublesome, especially to the NRDC. “We’ve been told that the five year reviews will not be public,” said Umekubo. “One large concern is how we will ensure effective oversight and implementation of the best available science and adaptive management.”

Along with their partners, the NRDC has suggested using transparent adaptive management practices including placing eagle population data, permitting information and other pertinent eagle research on a publicly available website, using independent scientific advisory panels to recommend advanced conservation practices, and third party monitoring and data collection at wind farms.

Meet the Saiga


By Matthew Hardcastle
BU News Service

The saiga antelope is a throwback to the Pleistocene, that strange, cold time in mammalian evolution that gave birth to such bizarre forms as the mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and giant ground sloth. In recent history, herds of saiga occupied the whole of the Eurasian steppe region, fFemale-saiga-antelope-in-winter-coatrom the Carpathians to Mongolia. But recent challenges have reduced their herds to a handful on distinct populations in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.

The saiga’s most prominent feature is its over-sized, drooping proboscis. This odd nose filters dust and warms and humidifies harsh desert air. Otherwise, the saiga is like modern antelope species in many ways. The males grow horns and often fight to the death over females during rutting season. Large herds of saiga migrate nomadically, grazing on a variety of plants including ones that are poisonous to other herbivores.

Saiga conservation was once a well-funded concern for the Soviet Union, and their herds reached nearly one million individuals. In recent decades, a network of conservation groups have done their best to maintain numbers, and saiga countries have designated reserves. However, habitat loss, disease, and poaching have led to the most precipitous decline ever observed in mammals. It should come as no surprise that their horns are valued in traditional Chinese medicine. The IUCN Red List classifies the Mongolian saiga as endangered and the Russian as critically endangered — one rung above being extinct in the wild.

Letting Go of the Tiger

Modified image, original licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


By Matthew Hardcastle
BU News Service

The tiger is an ambiguous figure, at once a powerful icon and a threat to livestock and people. Yet this majestic beast is well on its way from being mythologized to becoming an actual myth. Charitable organizations spend five to six million dollars a year to stave off its extinction, but wild populations have fallen to under 4,000 individuals. It may be time to give up on the tiger.

The fight to save the tiger embodies a “flagship species” model of conservation that selects a single species to be the public face for a particular habitat or group of organisms. The animals chosen are usually charismatic and iconic, like the elephant, the polar bear, the panda, or the whale. Animals selected in this way are often kept in zoos, as part of a captive breeding program or more often as an “ambassador” to raise awareness for conservation.

Restoring the tiger would bring balance back to their old habitats, but the barriers to achieving this goal are considerable. The tiger was once an apex predator in India and Southeast Asia, exerting top-down control across entire ecosystems. Today, it inhabits only 7 percent of its historic range. Groups working to save the tiger butt heads with government bureaucracy in tiger countries.  And urban development is an inexorable tide of habitat fragmentation.

While flagship species have undeniable appeal, singling them out for protection often distracts from other critical ecological issues. And some valuable ecosystems don’t harbor any flashy mascots, like the mountain streams of Appalachia. Rather than focusing on glamour species, conservation biologists are now selecting species with a focus of preserving biodiversity, a measure of the number and abundance of species in a given area, and a good indicator of ecosystem health. After all, saving the tiger but not its home and food sources would relegate the survivors to living only in zoos and scrupulously managed reserves.

Still, estimates used to approximate biodiversity tend to fail when modeling species as rare as the wild tiger. There’s no way of knowing whether current management strategies are working at all. This doesn’t mean that all conservation efforts are fruitless, but public money may be better spent elsewhere.

Captive breeding programs in zoos lack the capacity to ever restore tigers to the wild. They are in a better position to conserve uncharismatic species, like the pygmy rabbit, spotted stoat, and hellbender. These beauty pageant losers could be brought back from the brink of extinction in someone’s basement, restoring their roles in natural ecosystems.

The world’s ecosystems, charismatic or otherwise, provide environment-stabilizing services including water purification, soil fertilization, land management, and pest control. Together, the economic benefits of these services exceed the combined GDP of the whole human species. Shifting our focus to a group of organisms facing manageable levels of risk could preserve more ecosystem services than the tiger alone ever provided.

The wild tiger may well be past the point of no return, but the Quixotic quest to save it can teach us valuable lessons about setting priorities in conserving biodiversity. We do not treat all species as equals. If we temper this natural bias with a focus on ecological importance and manageability of risk rather than mass appeal, we will be well on our way to optimal returns on our investments.