The East Has Its Own Golden Eagles, and Advocates Say They Need Help

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Close your eyes and imagine a Golden Eagle. What type of landscape surrounds it? Chances are you’re envisioning something out of a John Wayne movie, and that’s fitting—most of these majestic raptors nest and soar among the mountain canyons, red-rock cliffs, and sagebrush seas of western North America.

Most, but not all. Casual birders may be surprised to learn that a smaller population of Golden Eagles spends the cold months among the humbler mountains and denser forests of many eastern states. Partly because they’re fewer in number, these eastern eagles face an uncertain future, say scientists and advocates who are making moves to steer more public attention and conservation action toward the birds.

In November, the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, a partnership made up of scientists and wildlife managers, published a conservation plan with recommendations to help the birds withstand a variety of evolving threats. And two days later, in a separate effort, the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy (ABC) petitioned the federal government to list the Eastern Golden Eagle subpopulation under the Endangered Species Act. “We think there are some threats that are not sufficiently addressed at the moment and are poised to perhaps become worse over time,” says Lewis Grove, ABC’s director of wind and energy policy.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to announce within 90 days whether a petition merits further consideration, but in reality those decisions often take longer, so the timeline for the eagle petition is unclear. 

Golden Eagle nests—massive bowls built from sticks, grass, moss, and the occasional bone or antler—could once be found throughout New England and New York. But over generations, a variety of human actions carved away at the population, including fire suppression that made open spaces harder to find, direct persecution of the birds before laws to protect them were widely enforced, and impacts from the insecticide DDT until it was banned in 1972. 

Nesting populations vanished from Massachusetts by the 1880s and gradually receded toward Canada. Today the birds breed in every eastern province except on the island of Newfoundland, but no known nests remain in the eastern states; the last known nesting attempt this side of the border was in Maine in 1996. “We know that over the long term, a couple hundred years, the population has declined substantially,” says Todd Katzner, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist and coordinator of the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group. 

Scientists figure around 5,000 Golden Eagles live east of the Great Plains, compared to more than 20,000 individuals in the contiguous western states. This genetically distinct eastern population is considered stable, but experts say there’s been too little research to say for sure. And because the birds take four years to reach sexual maturity and typically produce only a single brood of one to three eggs each year, their populations can be slow to rebound after declines. “The trend might be stable, but in general, if you extrapolate out some of the threats into the future, the concern is that the population is small enough and fragile enough that it’s at risk,” Grove says.

While Eastern Golden Eagles no longer nest south of the Canadian border, they winter in almost every eastern state.

While Eastern Golden Eagles no longer nest south of the Canadian border, they winter in almost every eastern state, where they continue to face a variety of threats: They’re hit by cars while eating roadside carrion, killed as bycatch in traps set for mammals, and poisoned by fragments of lead ammunition while scavenging carcasses. Despite being protected by federal law, the birds also are shot frequently; shooting was the cause of death for roughly a quarter of Golden Eagle carcasses from the Atlantic Flyway analyzed in a 2014 study. 

ABC’s petition acknowledges these hazards but focuses largely on a newer threat: collisions with wind turbines. When breeding season ends, the birds funnel southward along narrow Appalachian ridges that are also attractive for wind developers. Parts of southern Pennsylvania, in particular, already host several wind projects in a corridor where the birds migrate and overwinter, and eastern ridgetops will likely see further energy development as the industry expands. 

For now that appears to be more a potential concern than an urgent threat: As of late 2022, there had been only three documented Golden Eagle deaths from wind-turbine collisions in the East, according to the conservation plan. Still, while capturing more renewable energy to combat climate change “is massively important to the future of eagles and all birds,” Grove says, he also notes the need to act now to keep eagles safe as more wind turbines crop up where the birds migrate and forage. “The more you can prospectively build in strong conservation measures for these birds, the better the long-term prognosis gets.” 

Katzner declined to comment on ABC’s petition to list the population and noted the paucity of collisions reported so far in the East. Still, he says, wind turbines have been a significant cause of death for western eagles, and the threat seems poised to grow in Appalachia. “The buildout that is expected in North America, in the East and elsewhere, will certainly put a lot more turbine blades in the air,” he says. “Just by numbers, that has to create an increased risk.” 

The federal government recently stepped in to address that threat. This February the FWS announced changes to permitting rules for wind projects. Since 2009, the agency has offered special permits that protect companies from prosecution under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act if their turbines injure or kill those birds. In exchange, they are required to take steps to prevent and offset harm. But those permits are expensive and the application process can take years. As a result, only around 100 out of roughly 2,000 wind projects in the United States have applied, says Garry George, senior director for climate strategy at Audubon. “That’s just not good enough,” he says.

To encourage more companies to enroll, the updated rules, which took effect in April, establish a new streamlined general permit system for wind and electric transmission projects that pose low risk to eagles. (Those that are more likely to harm eagles won’t be eligible, but they can still apply for a more expensive special permit.) With a quicker turnaround and smaller fees, more companies are likely to seek the legal protection a permit provides, George says. That means more wind farms will monitor for and report injured or killed eagles, and adopt conservation measures, such as installing technology to detect when birds are nearby and temporarily shut down turbines. 

In addition, permit recipients will be required to purchase credits to fund “compensatory mitigation” projects, which will help to protect eagles from other hazards. Those credits might support efforts to help hunters switch to lead-free ammunition, for instance, or programs to remove eagle-attracting carcasses from roadsides. “We support the rule,” George says. “We want the wind energy industry to apply for permits so that they can provide offsets, advance conservation, and do conservation measures on their projects.” 

Grove cautions that the FWS may be underestimating the potential harm to Golden Eagles along Appalachian ridges, but on the whole, ABC also supports the new permitting framework. More permits will mean more monitoring and more data about threats to birds that, spectacular as they are, have been largely overlooked. “It’s a population that really just needs more research and more awareness brought to it,” he says. 

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