The bald eagle has become a presence on our landscape once again. These are northbound migrants, or possibly winter residents, and there are many more of them than there were just a couple of decades ago, when sighting an eagle was rare and uplifting. Today, eagles nest regularly along the Red River and in the Devils Lake area, and even in some field shelterbelts.
It is impossible to know how abundant eagles were in the days before settlement, extensive agriculture and pesticides. Probably they occurred in the hundreds here in the Red River Valley. The eagles have not regained these numbers, but they are much more common now than they were 50 years ago, and next year they are likely to be more abundant still.
Why should this be so?
The single best explanation is the decision to ban DDT, at first considered a godsend because it so effectively controlled insect pests. This was misleading, however, because the toxic compounds in the pesticide accumulated in prey species, and the apex predators suffered horribly. Several species were especially affected, including the bald eagle. The eagle was among the first species listed as endangered under federal legislation, and it was one of the first deemed safe and no longer in need of listing.
No doubt, decreased human presence on the land played a role, as well. People just aren’t as intrusive as we used to be – at least in our individual presence on the land. Of course, human activity continues across the landscape, but it involves a few passes with big machinery rather than a daylong presence on the land.
That means less disturbance for eagles and other birds of prey, and the reduced disturbance has helped the eagle population increase. Killing an eagle remains a crime – even if the death is an indirect one.
This truth hit home last week, when a Flasher, N.D., man pleaded guilty to federal charges in the death of half a dozen bald eagles. He had spread 20 tons of a restricted use pesticide, brand name Rozol, on 5,400 acres of land. His aim was to kill prairie dogs, but his employees “got sloppy” and did not put the poison in prairie dog burrows but spread it above ground instead. He faces a $100,000 fine and a year on supervised probation, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
Clearly, bald eagles remain vulnerable, and while bald eagles have increased in abundance in the Red River Valley – and across the Northern Plains – another iconic species is in steep decline. This is the western meadowlark, state bird of North Dakota and five other states.
Unlike the bald eagle, which is the national bird, the meadowlark doesn’t enjoy any special protection. Yet it is more threatened now than the eagle. The reason is different, however. In the case of the meadowlark, habitat destruction is the biggest threat. A pair of meadowlarks requires about seven acres of grass to produce a brood; smaller areas expose nests, and the birds themselves, to any number of dangers, including predatory mammals, especially red foxes.
Neither foxes nor pesticides were a threat when the prairie was more extensive. Foxes moved onto the plains as humans eliminated other canine species, especially wolves and coyotes, which are larger animals requiring more territory than foxes, and thus more likely to attract human attention.
Foxes aren’t called “sly” for no reason. They exploited this opportunity.
Meadowlarks are not the only species affected, of course. Predation by foxes is an important factor in the reproductive success of several species of ducks. Waterfowl, like eagles, have attracted the concern of humans, albeit for different reasons. Now, it’s the meadowlarks’ turn.
Federal programs establishing wetlands easements, wildlife refuges and waterfowl production areas have helped protect many bird species. The Trump administration’s decision to review and revise easement boundaries could put a number of kinds of birds at risk. Ducks don’t live on water, after all. They depend on nesting habitat in good cover. Easements that include only wet areas won’t help maintain duck numbers. Of course, such areas are of no value to meadowlarks and other grassland birds – perhaps as many as 30 or more species – which need the grass but not wet areas.
What’s needed here is a program that helps a broad spectrum of species – plants as well as wild creatures including but not limited to birds species.
Johann Walker, regional director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited, a conservation organization, made this point in the same issue of The Tribune that reported the eagle deaths.
“To keep the meadowlark’s song on our landscape for future generations, we need to maintain a serious dedication to practical and productive habitat partnerships between conservation and agriculture.”
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.