Despite the loss of federal endangered species protection, Arizona’s unique nestwatch program has continued to safeguard a growing population of desert-nesting bald eagles.
The program posts volunteer nestwatchers near bald eagle nests that face a danger of disturbance, since the eagles generally nest along rivers, streams and lakes popular with campers and anglers.
But for 35 years, the nestwatching teams of biologists and volunteers have camped or showed up at dawn at nest areas to shoo away people and keep a watchful eye on the chicks.
“For more than 35 years, the state’s unique nestwatch program has been an integral component of Arizona bald eagle management,” said Kenneth Jacobson, head of the Arizona Game and Fish Department Bald Eagle Management Program. “Nestwatchers have helped save the lives of more than 60 eagle nestlings since the program began in 1978. Their contributions certainly have helped Arizona’s bald eagle population grow.”
This year’s nestwatchers began their four-month tour of duty this week. They will watch 14 breeding areas, most along the Salt and Verde rivers in national forests, on Native American lands, and in Maricopa County parks.
The several pairs of bald eagles also nest along Tonto Creek near Roosevelt Lake. Another pair has for several years produced chicks on Bear Canyon Lake atop the Rim.
Eagle biologists say that the young usually return after four to five years to set up new nesting territories near where they were born. As a result, biologists hope that bald eagles will soon set up nesting territories on other Rim lakes and perhaps along the East Verde and Fossil Creek.
The eagles that spend the winter around Green Valley Park don’t have a nesting territory there, although they fish the lakes.
The nestwatch contractors will observe from dawn to dusk, collecting data about the eagles’ behavior, educating the public, and notifying rescuers of any life-threatening situations for the birds.
The nationally-recognized nestwatch program began as a weekend volunteer effort by the U.S. Forest Service and Maricopa Audubon to help ensure the continued success of bald eagle breeding. Now 26 government, private organizations and tribes are involved with the program to monitor bald eagle breeding areas that are under heavy pressure from human recreational activities.
So far in 2013, three new breeding areas have been documented. That brings Arizona to a record 68 bald eagle breeding areas throughout the state.
The department’s bald eagle conservation program is supported by the Heritage Fund, a 1990 voter-passed initiative that provides funding for wildlife conservation and education from Arizona lottery dollars.
A winter count found an average of 322 bald eagles in the state, including two-thirds of them adults. Most of those are migrating through the area. They rarely assemble in large concentrations like they do in Alaska and elsewhere, but sometimes gather in groups of up to 30, mostly in the lakes and rivers along the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains.
The status of the Arizona bald eagles has spurred repeated appeals by environmental groups and Native American tribes disputing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist the Arizona eagles along with bald eagles nationally. Arizona eagle advocates maintain that the small population of birds nesting here doesn’t mingle with the much larger number of eagles that migrate through the state but nest elsewhere. Therefore, they constitute a unique, localized population that remains vulnerable to extinction and therefore entitled to continued protection.
The argument has shifted back and forth in the courts, but at the moment the desert nesting bald eagles remain unlisted.
However, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has vowed to maintain the nestwatch program even without a listing, since it has contributed significantly to the breeding success of the eagles.
For more information on Arizona’s bald eagles, visit www.azgfd.gov/baldeagle or www.swbemc.org.