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Recovering bald eagles in Maine

Credit: Lance Roberts/USFWS

The bald eagle’s recovery is our greatest endangered species success. Credit: Lance Roberts/USFWS

Forty years ago, our nation’s symbol was in dire straits.

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) population had dwindled to such a low number that the iconic species was in danger of extinction—primarily the result of deforestation and extensive pesticide contamination. In Maine, DDT and other chemicals was heavily sprayed to kill the spruce bud worm, which had devastated balsam fir and spruce trees throughout the state.

Residue from these pesticides ran off into lakes and streams, contaminating fish the bird preyed on. Consuming animals with high levels of chemicals had a profound effect on eagle reproduction, causing eagles to lay eggs with shells so thin and brittle they often cracked before hatching. With few chicks hatching by 1976, when aerial surveys began, the state was home to fewer than three dozen individuals.

Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Dave Menke/USFWS

Eagle chicks. Credit: Dave Menke/USFWS

The 1972 DDT ban helped improve habitat quality for the bald eagle and other species across the U.S. The effort to recover the eagle in Maine was two-fold—understanding the effect of chemical pollution of the species’ prey, and protecting nesting areas to promote hatchling success and population growth.

“It was a state-federal partnership from beginning to end,” says Charlie Todd of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, referring to initiatives to recover the bald eagle. “It started with a Section 6 grant under the Endangered Species Act—money to help the state monitor eagles. Maine supplied the manpower.”

Bald eagle. Credit: Lori Iverson/USFWS

Bald eagle. Credit: Lori Iverson/USFWS

First, researchers looked to find whether the eagle, a carrion feeder, could be lured away from contaminated prey with “clean” food—road-killed deer and moose and the carcasses of trapped beavers and raccoons.

Mark McCollough, now a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, began working toward an answer during his doctoral studies at the University of Maine in the late 1970s. With funding from Section 6 grants, McCollough’s began his research in Cobscook Bay State Park—home to the last concentration of bald eagles in New England. Here, he set out the bait.

For five years, McCollough furnished a 70-ton banquet of dead animals that game wardens provided. He recorded the action of eagles and forwarded this information, along with eagle band numbers, to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. The results documented that, rather than the estimated five to 10 percent that lived to be five years old, 70 percent reached adulthood. By the late 1980s, the Maine population was experiencing encouraging growth. … Finish reading this story on our endangered species website!

Bald eagle holding a fish in its talons at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Credit: Ron Holmes/USFWS

Bald eagle holding a fish in its talons. Credit: Ron Holmes/USFWS

The Atlantic puffin is already at the southern end of breeding range. Photographed at Green Lake National Fish Hatchery. Credit: Fred Yost/USFWS

Climate change and the future of Maine’s wildlife

Today you’re hearing from Bob Houston, a biologist and GIS specialist in our Gulf of Maine Coastal Program. He’s one of the authors of the report, Climate Change and Biodiversity in Maine, released today. The report identifies 168 vulnerable species of fish, plants, birds and other wildlife that could experience large range shifts and population declines in Maine as a result of climate change by 2100.

Today you’re hearing from Bob Houston, a biologist and GIS specialist in our Gulf of Maine Coastal Program. He’s one of the authors of the report, Climate Change and Biodiversity in Maine, released today. The report identifies 168 vulnerable species of fish, plants, birds and other wildlife that could experience large range shifts and population declines in Maine as a result of climate change by 2100.

Photo courtesy of Bob.

What will happen to the animals, plants and habitats for which we work so hard to protect? Will their environment change so much in the coming century that they will face hardships they can’t tolerate?

These and other questions were on my mind as I sat at a table with other scientists to discuss the future of ducks, seabirds, shorebirds and other bird species.

I have been very lucky to be a part of Maine’s Beginning with Habitat team from its early beginnings. The partnership, which includes state and local agencies and non-government organizations, was formed to share important information about plant and animal habitats with towns and land trusts to inform decisions about town planning and open space conservation.

The program has been a great success. But now we wrestled with questions about climate change and sea-level rise: How would it affect the plants and animals that are the focus of the Beginning with Habitat program? What will happen when the temperatures increase, rainfall and snowfall patterns change, non-native pests and plants expand their invasion, and the sea rises?

A sub-team of the partnership was formed to try to answer these questions and investigate the impact of climate change on Maine’s priority plants, animals and habitats. Led by Andrew Whitman of Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, the team decided to rely on the expert opinion of many scientists throughout Maine and the Northeast.

More than 100 scientists contributed their expert knowledge and opinions to the process through an in-depth online survey and an intensive one-day workshop. It was at this one-day workshop that I found myself at a table with other wildlife biologists who have spent their lives researching and conserving all types of birds and their habitats.

As other groups discussed plants, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles and invertebrates (such as beetles and dragonflies), our group discussed the future of birds. I quickly found that we had no definite answers. The uncertainties were overwhelming at times.

The Atlantic puffin is already at the southern end of breeding range.  Photographed at Green Lake National Fish Hatchery. Credit: Fred Yost/USFWS

The Atlantic puffin is already at the southern end of its breeding range. Photographed at Green Lake National Fish Hatchery. Credit: Fred Yost/USFWS

For instance, Atlantic puffins nest on Maine’s coastal islands and feed on herring and other fish in the Gulf of Maine. But they also spend a considerable amount of time outside the Gulf of Maine – in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Labrador Sea and other areas along the Atlantic coast. It is difficult to predict the effects of climate change on their food base in the Gulf of Maine, much less all the other areas that puffins rely on in a typical year.

We discussed these and many other questions that day. In the end, we identified 168 vulnerable species that could experience large range shifts and population declines as a result of climate change in Maine by 2100. They include Atlantic salmon, Blanding’s turtle, least and roseate terns, Atlantic puffin, red knot, saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow, American oystercatcher, piping plover, moose and Canada lynx.

The eastern moose may be vulnerable to outbreaks of moose ticks that survive mild winters well and can cause stressful hair loss and increased calf mortality. Credit: David Govatski/USFWS

The eastern moose may be vulnerable to outbreaks of moose ticks that survive mild winters well and can cause stressful hair loss and increased calf mortality. Credit: David Govatski/USFWS

We found that many of our existing habitat conservation efforts should succeed despite climate change. We also found that we might need new adaptive strategies—ones that put even more emphasis on connected habitats to allow plants and animals to respond to changing climate.

While only time will confirm our assessments, we hope this report will support decisions and actions that ensure a strong future for Maine’s natural heritage.

See the results of the vulnerability assessment.

Photo of Veazie Dam from Penobscot River Restoration Trust, http://flic.kr/p/f6Aoum

Penobscot River: Atlantic salmon’s best chance

We’re sharing stories from our biologists and partners striving to restore the river for Atlantic salmon and other fish and ensuring it continues to provide benefits for the people of Maine. Today you’re hearing from Bucky Owen, former commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife!

Artwork on the Veazie Dam Breaching Poster from the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.

Artwork on the Veazie Dam Breaching Poster from the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.

This video is part of our ongoing celebration of the second dam removal in Maine’s Penobscot River restoration project! Last summer, Great Works Dam in Old Town and Bradley was taken down. On Monday, July 22, a community event kicked off the beginning of the removal of Veazie Dam, the closest dam blocking fish on the Penobscot from the ocean.

The lower river will flow freely from Milford to the sea, allowing endangered shortnose sturgeon, threatened Atlantic sturgeon, rainbow smelt, tomcod, and striped bass access to 100 percent of their historic habitat. Opening up the lower river will be a huge step forward in realizing the project’s goal to restore self-sustaining runs of all sea-run fisheries in the watershed. Learn more about the effort.

Wait – there’s more! See other videos and posts from work on Veazie and Great Works.