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California and the West

The Eagles Have Landed

Ousted by Urban Growth, Growing Numbers Are Relocating Near State's Reservoirs

July 27, 1998|MARCIA MEIER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAKE CACHUMA, Calif. — The return of bald eagles to Southern California, aided paradoxically by urban growth, has delighted naturalists, who believed they were gone for good.

Increasing numbers of the majestic birds have taken up residence at Lake Cachuma, north of Santa Barbara, and other reservoirs built in the 1950s and '60s to quench a human thirst fueled by development.

"Those reservoirs are just perfect habitat for eagles," said Brian Walton, coordinator of the Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz.

The dramatic increase in the number of lakes in California, primarily in the inland valleys, in the last half of the century has created ideal conditions for eagles. The lakes are generally pristine, and they provide an abundant year-round food supply, with trout and other fish stocked by humans, Walton said.

"There's a large wintering population using all these lakes in California. But it won't be long before we have them in the northern Channel Islands," Walton said. "And they'll be breeding at several reservoirs in the next 15 years."

Southern California is one of the last places biologists expected the eagle to again flourish. Once numerous in the offshore islands and coastal regions, bald eagles had disappeared from Southern California by the 1950s because of human encroachment, habitat destruction and the pesticide DDT, which weakened the shells of their eggs.

At Lake Cachuma, there have been as many as 18 migrating eagles in a winter season. At least one pair has taken up year-round residence, first settling in 1989 into a nest on private land just north of the lake. The 9-foot-wide, 23-foot-deep nest had been abandoned when construction began on the lake in the 1950s.

The pair, which has since established a new nest, has produced chicks regularly, said Neal Taylor, naturalist at Lake Cachuma Recreation Area.

Lake San Antonio in Monterey County and Lake Nacimiento north of San Luis Obispo have a total of four nesting pairs.

One pair of eagles is beginning to nest at Lake Skinner, a Metropolitan Water District lake in Riverside County, Walton said, but they have produced no chicks.

As part of a bald eagle restoration program on Santa Catalina Island, eggs from a pair of eagles have been taken to hatch in captivity, then returned to the nest to be raised by the adult birds. At reservoirs, the birds are having more success on their own.

"Not by design, but by accident, we have in essence created substitute habitat for habitat that was destroyed by man," said Robert Mesta, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura. "It was just dumb luck. But we'll take it."

State and local officials are working to ensure that they make the most of this opportunity. Lake Cachuma, a recreation area as well as a primary water source for Santa Barbara, is expected to remain an attractive habitat for its resident eagles and for those passing through in the winter.

The entire north shore of the lake is off limits to humans: People are prohibited, and no boats are allowed to land. Perching poles have been erected to encourage both eagles and osprey to hang around. If grant money can be obtained, nesting platforms will be built in the hope of enticing more of the birds to stay year-round.

"That an eagle pair established residency here is a big deal," said Liz Mason, the assistant naturalist at Lake Cachuma Recreation Area. "It really is a testament to the efforts that have been made."

The bald eagle has done so well in the Northwest and elsewhere that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have held meetings in recent weeks to discuss removing the eagle from listing under the Endangered Species Act. Four years ago, its status was changed from "endangered" to the less-serious "threatened."

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Although the bald eagle has returned from near-extinction, there is concern about an effort in Congress to weaken the landmark Endangered Species Act, which, along with the banning of DDT in 1972, is credited with saving the bald eagle and many other species.

One bill, by Sen. Dick Kempthorne (R-Idaho), would reauthorize the act, but would strengthen property owner rights, which many environmentalists say would be an unacceptable compromise. A second bill, by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) would toughen recovery requirements.

The bills gained ground initially, but now neither is expected to be heard before Congress adjourns in October. However, some kind of bill to reauthorize the act, which expired in 1992, is expected to be introduced next term.

Mason worries about what a weakened act might do to long-term eagle recovery.

"I think we would set ourselves back 100 years," she said. "Eradicating the Endangered Species Act sends a signal that we don't have to continue vigilance, but we always do."

Still, officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service think the time has come to remove the eagle from the list, regardless of what Congress does with the act, Mesta said.

Other laws--the Bald Eagle Recovery Act and the Migratory Bird Act, for example--protect individual birds and their nests. Although the Endangered Species Act addresses habitat protection and recovery efforts, Mesta said he thinks the eagle has made enough progress in the wild to sustain itself if it loses Endangered Species Act protection.

In California, reservoirs may be the eagle's salvation.

"I suspect that they will eventually come back in similar and maybe larger numbers, but it will be in different habitat," Walton said. "There's no reason bald eagles won't be around a century from now, because they live in lakes we create and eat food we provide."

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