Bald Eagle Recovery
Bald eagles nested rather commonly along Georgia's coast and in the Okefenokee Swamp up into the early part of this century, but were of only casual occurrence elsewhere in the state (Hoxie 1910, Greene et al. 1945, Burleigh 1958). In addition to the coastal region, suitable nesting habitat was probably limited primarily to major river swamps and depressional pond and wetland systems in the Coastal Plain. By the late 1950s, declines in eagle numbers had been noted and the species was no longer considered to be common (Tompkins 1958, Teal 1959). The population continued to decline to one known successful nest in 1970 on St. Catherines Island (Johnson et al. 1974), and none through most of the ensuing decade (Odom 1980) in which the bald eagle was described as a rare transient and winter resident (Denton 1977). As with eagle populations elsewhere, the mortality rate and lack of reproduction that resulted in this decline were likely the result of environmental contamination by DDT and other toxic chemicals. Habitat loss and shooting probably were also important factors.
In 1973, the same year that the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed and the year after DDT use was outlawed in the United States, Georgia enacted the Endangered Wildlife Act which allowed listing and protection of rare animal species. Bald eagles were placed on Georgia's Protected Wildlife List as "endangered" in 1974. In 1979, Georgia DNR began releasing young eagles obtained from captive breeding facilities and from wild nests in states where the birds were more numerous. The initial release site was on Sapelo Island, and the program was later expanded to Butler Island and Lake Allatoona. Eighty-nine eaglets were released through 1995 but it is not known if this was a significant factor in rebuilding the nesting population.
After several years with no known nesting activity, an occupied eagle nest was discovered in 1978 on Georgia's coast and by 1981 there were two known occupied nests when reproduction was again documented. The nesting population has continued to grow and there were 82 known occupied nests in 2005 when 61 successful nests fledged 94 young. The coastal region still has the greatest density of nesting eagles, but territories are now found throughout much of the state where there is sufficient open water habitat and large trees for nesting. All known nests are monitored annually to determine occupancy, productivity, and management needs. Additional nests are discovered each year through limited aerial searches and through reports from the public. Resolution of habitat management conflicts on private property is a top priority. Recommendations based upon the federal management guidelines are adapted as suitable at each nest site in an effort to prevent harassment of the eagles that could lead to nest abandonment while also minimizing landowner restrictions.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downlisted the bald eagle to threatened in 1995, and in 1999 proposed that it be taken off the Endangered Species List. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. The species is still listed as threatened under Georgia's Endangered Wildlife Act. DNR does not have a good estimate of Georgia's eventual eagle population, but the numbers will likely increase through several more years as additional eagle pairs adapt to nesting near human activity. Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy (AVM), a mysterious disease of the central nervous system, has resulted in the loss of eagle territories at Lake Juliette and the lower part of Clarks Hill Reservoir in recent years, and could have a devastating impact if it spreads to other sites. So far the disease has remained fairly localized.
For more information on bald eagles in Georgia, contact the Forsyth office of WRD's Nongame Conservation Section, (478) 994-1438.
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