The rebirth of the American bald eagle populations in Oregon and nationwide can easily be witnessed this time of year, as America’s national symbol bird dances in the sky over the mid-valley’s bright green farm fields.
But while it may be soothing to watch the majestic birds, once nearly extinct, they also pose a problem for sheep producers, who say they lose newborn lambs to them.
“The eagles migrate here following the Canada geese and ducks,” Brownsville area sheep producer Reed Anderson said. “They start out eating dead sheep and then figure out it’s easier to kill a baby lamb than a goose or duck.”
Anderson estimates he loses 10 to 15 percent of his lamb crop to eagles.
“It never used to be this way,” Anderson said. “You might see one to three eagles on a dead sheep. Now, you might see a dozen.”
Anderson said he tries to keep newborn lambs protected for the first couple of weeks and to keep ewes in higher traffic areas, where eagles don’t like to settle.
Ewes average 1.5 lambs per season.
“It’s also the time of year when rodents and other field critters are hibernating,” Anderson said of the eagles’ search for food.
About 50 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were only about 400 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous 48 states. The pesticide DDT was found to harm the birds’ reproductive systems and was banned. In 1978, the bald eagle was listed as a threatened species. It was delisted in 2007.
There are now an estimated 10,000 nesting pairs nationwide. The American Eagle Foundation estimates there are about 400 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Oregon.
Of the contiguous states, Minnesota has the largest bald eagle population, with an estimated 1,312 nesting pairs, followed by Florida with 1,133 pairs. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there are more than 30,000 bald eagles in that state.
Emily Ruckert raises about 400 ewes in the Seven Mile Lane area and echoed Anderson’s sentiments about eagles.
“They are definitely a problem,” she said. “On a nice day like today, if we lamb outside, we really have to keep an eye on them. The eagles will be sitting and watching.”
Ruckert said the eagles will start by cleaning up afterbirth, but often progress to newborns.
“We actually had a ewe chase an eagle off the other day,” Ruckert said.
Ruckert said it’s difficult to estimate how many lambs are killed by eagles since there are other predators, including coyotes. But she said she lost between 10 and 15 lambs last season.
She has seen as many as 20 bald eagles in a single field.
“We try to lamb in the barns if possible and keep the lambs in for a couple weeks,” Ruckert said.
Her father, Roger Ruckert, said that in the 1950s, sighting one eagle was something to talk about.
“I know people believe bald eagles will only eat dead things, but they do pull salmon out of rivers and they aren’t dead,” he said.
Ruckert said eagles also have learned that after a ewe has delivered one lamb and is delivering a second lamb, it is vulnerable.
Although he hasn't not seen an eagle drop a lamb to kill it, an employee has.
Ruckert said the issue of increased cougar populations in the mid-valley creates a domino effect in terms of predator pecking order. He said the cougars and coyotes have pushed lower in the mid-valley as well.
Ruckert said coyotes will often crush a lamb’s windpipe and leave its carcass.
“It’s definitely a success story from a conservation viewpoint,” said Martin Nugent, threatened and endangered sensitive species coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It is an iconic species nationally and it was heavily impacted by pesticides in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.”
Nugent credited the banning of DDT, along with protection under state and federal threatened and endangered species programs, with its comeback.
“It is a recovery story that we are able to document, thanks to Oregon State University and the Oregon Eagle Foundation’s constant monitoring over 30 years,” Nugent said. “Bald and golden eagles are spectacular to see, and although they have been delisted as an endangered species, they remain protected.”
The bald eagle has been removed from both the state and federal threatened and endangered lists, but it remains illegal to harass them or to shoot them.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the bald eagle is protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which was passed in 1940. It makes it illegal to take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, export or import any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, or any part of them, including their nests or eggs.
Penalties range from a $5,000 fine and one year imprisonment, up to a $250,000 fine and two years of imprisonment.
Farmers and ranchers can apply for a permit to haze eagles, but the process can be time-consuming, because a representative of the U.S. Wildlife Services must inspect the lamb carcass and determine it was indeed killed by an eagle.
The carcass is supposed to be left in the field, which is a problem since it likely will be consumed by other predators and it can take several weeks before a permit is issued.