Golden eagles losing ground in the county

Can conservation efforts stem the loss, or are they on their way out?

by Alice Martinez

s with all wildlife, loss of habitat is the most significant problem facing birds of prey, also known as raptors. While raptors are able to migrate and some can adapt in certain urban environments, the continued loss of areas to human use is putting pressure on many ­ especially the larger species.

Golden eagles are the largest predatory birds in North America, with a wingspan of more than seven feet. An eagle can live to be 30 to 40 years old. Locally, the golden eagle population is non-migratory, meaning that there is still enough foraging and desirable climate conditions for the birds to live here all year round - at least east of I-15.

Counting eagles

We have good data on the golden eagle population thanks to an extensive volunteer effort called the Golden Eagle Survey Project. Dave Bittner, a biologist and Director, describes the project as a, "bunch of biologists particularly interested in birds of prey." Forty-three volunteers observe and record data related to eagles. Seven professional wildlife biologist donate their time to coordinate and run the program. Together, they represent about 125 years of cumulative experience in raptor research.

This will be the seventh spring that the project has surveyed eagles in San Diego County. They've looked county-wide for any evidence of nests and eagles. Over the years they have accumulated information from people who know the historical locations of eagle nests and sent people to discover which were alive and which were extirpated. They feel that in last three years they've found almost all the eagles in the county ­ that is, those that are left. They estimate that there are between 35 and 40 pairs of eagles left in the county.

"We've lost about 50 percent of the population since the 70s," says Bittner. "While development, interstates [freeways], agriculture and housing have all expanded their land use, we have lost almost half of all the birds that nested. We don't have a lot of wild birds flying in here to replace these birds. We have not had replacement of golden eagles. Unfortunately, most of the young are killed as they encounter cars, power lines, or diminishing territories."


The latest in efforts to preserve some habitat for eagles are the city's and county's proposals for multiple-species planning. In a presentation before a gathering of conservation leaders trying to assess the status of the city's Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) plan, Bittner's maps of the territories told the story of the eagles' elimination west of the I-15 freeway.

"Birds are adaptable to a certain extent, but there is only one nest remaining west of I-15 and south of Camp Pendleton. Historically eagles roamed coastal areas as well," Bittner stated.

The city's MSCP plan states that their planning and acquisition efforts, if successful, will save 7 out of 14 eagle pairs within the MSCP. The MSCP planning area represents 40 percent of existing eagle populations. The other 60 percent is in other multiple-habitat planning areas, the details of which are yet to be determined.

"What we are saying is that this plan will ultimately destroy 40% of all of San Diego's remaining Golden Eagles. If Brazil wanted to destroy 40% of their Amazon rainforest and put this down on paper as a management goal, the rest of the world would protest until they changed the plan. What would happen if an individual applied for a permit to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to shoot out one pair of Golden Eagles each year for the next twenty years within the MSCP Area? Do you think they would approve it? Let's hope not!

"Were trying to act as competent biologists to provide this information to the agencies," Bittner says. "There is a sincere interest at the agencies and all the various jurisdictions. The consensus is we are going to do everything we can to protect eagles.

"But the impression I get when I look at that the maps is that it's not the habitat that one would say is most biologically productive. That's where they plan on putting houses. If you look at the land, it's all the stuff no one wants to build on anyway. It's not the high-quality lands. What we're looking at mitigating in the MSCP is pretty rugged country. So already no one wants to develop it."

MSCP: mixed blessings

What the MSCP plan itself says is also sobering. Quoting from one of the key and most controversial Tables: the "Details of Rationale for Identifying Species as Covered," that seeks to justify allowing permits to "take" the habitat and/or the species listed, you find the following:

"This species [golden eagle] will be covered by the MSCP because 53 percent of potential foraging and nesting habitat will be conserved. Local populations are not critical to ... the species long term survival."

They go on to briefly list known development projects near nesting areas or destroying foraging areas and rate them as whether the nesting territory "should remain viable" or "may not remain viable."

San Diego Sierra Club Chapter Coordinator Craig Adams sums it up this way: "The federal and state agencies may not care if golden eagles disappear from San Diego, but many San Diegans feel differently. The Sierra Club has not yet taken a position on the plan, but, like many others, has a long list of concerns."

According to Bittner, "There is not enough information to know whether eagles are protected. The biological assessment that has been done is weak. But let's face it. It's a compromise. All the birds in the western part of the county are gone. From my standpoint, anything is better than what we have. Any attempt to purchase land, preserve land or implement conservation agreements is much better than what we have today. I don't see any controls right now. With all the faults with the MSCP, I feel it's better than what we've got. It's not a plan I would have as my dream, but it is a plan I would approve."

Please send donations to support The Golden Eagle Survey Project to: The Wildlife Management Institute (Golden Eagle Survey Project), PO Box 2209, Ramona CA 92065. (619) 789-1932.