By Joe Vaillancourt
After decades of recuperation, the bald eagle population in Michigan has risen to a level that has prompted officials to remove the bird from the state endangered species list.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, chemicals in pesticides had an impact on many birds at the top of the food chain,” said Christopher Hoving, endangered species coordinator at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“The chemicals weakened the eggs, so when the birds sat on them, they would crush them. It ceased reproduction for a while. Many birds of prey are slowly making comebacks. It’s been a culmination of decades of conservation,” he said.
The bald eagle is now off both state and federal endangered species lists for Michigan. However, the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 makes it a crime to hunt, kill or otherwise harm them.
According to the department, there were fewer than 100 nests in the state in 1969. In 2006, there were nearly 500 occupied nests, and the number is growing.
Hoving said bald eagles thrive in the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula, but there have been recent sightings in Calhoun and Kalamazoo counties.
“Bald eagles are pretty much found statewide,” said Tom Funke, director of conservation at the Michigan Audubon Society. “Almost every county has sightings, even if there may be only one or two eagles.”
He said Michigan ranks among the nation’s largest bald eagle populations. Among 24 continental states surveyed in 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded having 482 breeding pairs in Michigan, second to Wisconsin with 1,065.
“A lot of birds will be in coastal or north country communities,” Funke said. “The most bald eagles are in Alaska. States comparable to Michigan include Oregon, Minnesota and Washington.”
“The bald eagle population in Michigan is increasing all the time. They are fairly common in Monroe and Wayne counties,” said Ray Adams of the Kalamazoo Nature Center.
Adams is compiling the second edition of the “Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas.” The first atlas was published in 1991.
He said the southern half of the Lower Peninsula has experienced the biggest expansion in bald eagle population.
“At the time of the first atlas, bald eagles were found in 15.7 percent of Michigan townships. Our recent research saw that number rise to 27.7 percent,” Adams said.
Amy Spray, policy director for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said the state will continue to monitor bald eagles.
“When an animal is on the state endangered species list, it shows the federal government what the state is doing to protect the animal,” she said. “Although the bald eagle is not on the list, it will have similar protection.
“They’re at a population level where they don’t have to be individually managed,” Spray said.
The DNR’s Hoving said wildlife experts review the endangered species list every two years. If an animal is proposed for removal, the experts conduct a full review of the species in the state.
DNR then opens the list up for public comments and suggestions.
After DNR finalizes any proposed change in the endangered species list, it must pass the state Legislature and become law.
Funke said delisting the bald eagle is a strong statement of improved conservation.
“When I was a kid, it was a big deal to see a bald eagle,” he said. “The population increase is great. I want no endangered animals in Michigan. As a conservationist, I want to put myself out of a job.”