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Editorial: Restoration of eagles a reason to celebrate

  • A bald eagle at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vt., on Oct. 8, 2012. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

Published: 12/5/2022 12:42:27 PM
Modified: 12/5/2022 12:42:05 PM

Upper Valley residents who can now thrill to the majestic sweep of bald eagles over the Connecticut River should not only marvel at nature’s capacity for regeneration but also celebrate the power of human intervention to help reverse man-made ecological disaster.

As our colleague Frances Mize recently reported, there were 100 eagles in New Hampshire at last count in 2020, including 25 in the vicinity of the Connecticut River. In contrast, single-day midwinter counts in the 1980s registered just five to 10 statewide. Judith Lombardi, a wildlife photographer who has tracked the eagle population along the Connecticut since the late 1990s, told Mize: “Now the population has become so healthy, and there are so many in our area, that it’s not uncommon to see them flying over I-89. It becomes kind of run-of-the-mill.” This happy development owes much to the restoration efforts of the New Hampshire Audubon Society and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.

The story is much the same in Vermont, where the bald eagle population has grown rapidly in the past 15 years. The first breeding pair in the state was spotted in 2008; by 2020, 64 chicks were fledged out of 37 breeding pairs.

The decline and the restoration of the species is at once both a cautionary and inspiring tale. In 1782, when the magnificent bird of prey was adopted as America’s national symbol, there were an estimated 100,000 nesting bald eagles. The beginning of their decline has been traced as far back as the mid- to late 1800s, with habitat destruction and degradation taking their toll along with hunting.

That decline accelerated after World War II when the synthetic pesticide DDT came into widespread use to kill mosquitoes and other insects. Its toxins seeped into waterways, where they were absorbed by aquatic plants and fish. Bald eagles were in turn poisoned when they ate contaminated fish; the chemical also degraded the thickness of their egg shells, which broke during incubation or failed to hatch altogether, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. By 1963, only 417 nesting pairs existed in the United States. Peregrine falcons and other bird populations were also driven to the edge of extinction.

The extent of this chemical nightmare was exposed by the naturalist Rachel Carson in her seminal 1962 work, Silent Spring, which helped to galvanize the modern environmental movement. To simplify and shorten a long and complicated story, the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972, an act that was highly controversial at the time. The bald eagle also gained protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which provided the means for government entities and their nonprofit partners to launch and accelerate captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts and nest site protections. By 2021, the Fish & Wildlife Service estimated the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states as 316,700, including 71,467 nesting pairs.

To be sure, that is a remarkable success story. The fact that human agency was able to counter human folly in the case of the bald eagle and other birds is testament to the ability of Americans to understand and appreciate Henry David Thoreau’s maxim: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

It is also a story that should give resolve to a new generation of Americans that faces the threat of global catastrophe in the form of climate change induced by human action. It may already be too late to prevent some of the effects of climate disaster; but don’t underestimate what can be achieved when the power of human resolve and human ingenuity is harnessed to a great cause. “Man is capable of care as much as he is of destruction,” wrote William O. Douglas, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice who was also a leading environmental voice. But only an inspired citizenry that demands action and won’t take “no” for an answer can mobilize that power, which is the existential challenge for our time.

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