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Eagles Back at Winter Home

Wildlife: Despite the Klamath Basin water war, migration appears normal. But some worry about future prospects.


TULELAKE, Calif. — With the first wisps of winter, they soar in, the largest concentration of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. In a good year, as many as 900 of the majestic birds show up in the wildlife refuges ringing this farm community.

So far this year, the migration appears to be relatively normal.

But with the eagles' once hospitable winter home now the epicenter of a water war so fierce it has drawn national attention, conservationists worry that the birds' future in the broad, stark plain of the Klamath Basin remains in doubt.

Their prospects looked particularly dismal last year as drought dried up wetlands that serve as the birds' winter habitat. A late spurt of irrigation water and heavy snows helped turn things around.

Eagles have historically wintered in the basin, which straddles the California-Oregon border. It is a key stop on the Pacific Flyway for migrating waterfowl. Biologists estimate that 80% of the ducks, geese and other birds that commute up and down the flyway stop over in the Klamath. Waterfowl are a staple of the eagles' diet.

"The long-term impacts are what spook you the most," said Dave Mauser, a federal biologist. "Without water, you lower the carrying capacity of the flyway for waterfowl and hence for eagles."

In the decades since the Klamath River was tamed by dikes and canals to feed the thirst of agribusiness, the basin's waterfowl population has been in steady decline. As recently as the early 1960s, 6 million ducks, geese and other migrating birds stopped in the basin. Now, a typical year might see a quarter of that number.

In the year just ended, one of the worst droughts in a century cut available water to about a third of average. And federal land managers slashed irrigation supplies to support endangered salmon in the Klamath River and suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake. Those cutbacks sparked weeks of protests by Klamath Basin farmers.

Amid that fight, the region's six wildlife refuges also fared dismally. From January to August 2001, no water was allowed to flow to the wetlands. "By the middle of summer, we were in bad shape," said Phil Norton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager in Klamath.

Authorities worried that without water, the usual migration of waterfowl would be stemmed and the bald eagles--for decades themselves on the federal endangered species list--could be harmed.

The water flow was restored only after environmentalists filed suit in August warning that the fall migration and the fate of the eagles hung in the balance. The "eagle water," as it was called, began to flow in late summer.

Norton said the flow helped save the fall migration, but came too late to bolster the breeding season. With some wetlands bone-dry, nesting birds were forced to congregate around just a few marshes, making their eggs and chicks easy pickings for raccoons and other predators.

Eagles begin to show up in November and December, migrating down from Canada. The population peaks in early February. By March, the eagles are heading back north on the spring migration.

With a stunning cap of white feathers set atop a powerful set of dark-gray wings, the bald eagle's good looks mask a quiet reputation as an inveterate scavenger. Biologists said eagles have the hunting skills to catch live prey, but typically prefer to feed on dead or diseased birds. Salmon exhausted by the long swim to spawn or minced up by dam turbines also are a popular menu item.

Current worries aside, the 1990s have been a productive decade for the birds. Once pushed to near extinction by pesticide-induced reproductive problems and illegal hunting, bald eagles have bounded back. Federal regulators even talk of some day removing them from the endangered species list.

Heading into this winter, wildlife biologists suggested that the Klamath eagles would need at least 125,000 wintering waterfowl to avoid repercussions.

They got even more. Counts early this month put the waterfowl population at about 200,000, up dramatically from 140,000 in January 2001 and 155,000 in January 2000.

The eagles didn't seem to be faring as well, with just 97 birds showing up in early January counts of the entire basin. That is far under the 220 tallied the same time a year earlier and a fraction of the 552 in 1998, the last really big year for eagles in the basin.

But last week biologists found 183 at a single roost of big trees near the Lower Klamath Refuge, boosting confidence that the eagles are faring well.

"It's looking like a reasonably average kind of year, like it's been the last five years or so," said Jim Hainline, the federal wildlife biologist who conducts the count.

Conservationists said the more important issue is the birds' long-term prospects.

With water hard to come by more years than not, the wetlands of the Klamath Basin have typically stood last in line when federal managers make allotments. The water needs of endangered fish, agribusiness and Native American tribes typically carry a higher priority than the refuges.

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