On June 20, 1782, the founding fathers of the United States of America selected the bald eagle as the national bird. Symbolic of the country itself, the bald eagle has since gone through some trying times. It has been poisoned, trapped, shot, killed for bounty and otherwise blown out of our skies by people who felt an eagle belonged on a dollar bill rather than atop a white pine tree in northern Minnesota.
As our state was settled by pioneers, birds of prey were generally considered "varmints" because they competed with people for use of fish and game species. Sometimes birds of prey also killed domestic livestock. Birds of prey, collectively called raptors, were killed on sight.
In addition, the proliferation of pesticides, like DDT that followed World War II, created a poisonous environment for raptors. DDT was passed along the food chain from fish and other organisms to bald eagles. That concentrated the chemicals in their bodies, causing their eggshells to become so thin that routine incubation crushed the eggs.
The eventual recovery of the bald eagle has become a conservation success story, and the recovery of bald eagles in Minnesota is particularly impressive. The population has now exceeded its recovery goal of 300 occupied nest territories and is growing by about 30 nesting pairs per year!
Eagles have expanded their range from northern Minnesota and now nest in southeastern Minnesota. In 1988, they even began nesting along the Minnesota River Valley in western Minnesota for the first time in over 100 years. In 2007, it was estimated the Minnesota population is over 2,300 pairs!
Many people and agencies have helped bring back the bald eagles. The recovery of the bald eagle began in the early 1960's in the Chippewa National Forest in north central Minnesota. United States Forest Service biologist John Mathisen became nationally recognized for his pioneering efforts to save nesting eagle populations. The U.S. Forest Service prepared individual management plans for every eagle breeding area on the Chippewa National Forest. These now number 144. Buffer zones and seasonal limits on human activity near eagle nests helped eagles increase their numbers.
Each year, the Minnesota DNR captures four eagle chicks in northern Minnesota for transport and release in other states. Only one chick is taken from each of four nests, leaving one or two chicks for the parents to raise. In this way, Minnesota has aided in the restoration of bald eagles in New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and Georgia.
The preparation of individual nest management plans for bald eagles has now gone beyond the national forests. Regional DNR nongame wildlife specialists prepare bald eagle nest management plans for state, county, and private lands throughout Minnesota. The plans are prepared free of charge for landowners.
Other current eagle conservation efforts include aerial surveys of eagle wintering areas in southeastern Minnesota by DNR regional nongame specialist Joan Galli and analysis of mercury in the blood of eagle chicks hatched in northern lakes where the water has high mercury levels (blood samples are taken from chicks before they leave the nest). Two bald eagle nests threatened by lakeshore development were saved through acquisition by the Nongame Wildlife Program and the Reinvest in Minnesota Program. The nests were on Trout Lake near Bovey. They had been in use since the early 1950's. The two areas total 55 acres and are managed as wildlife management areas with seasonal sanctuaries for the eagles.
The Nongame Wildlife Program spends about $50,000 per year on bald eagle conservation efforts.
The bald eagle is listed as a species of special concern in Minnesota, but its dramatic increase during the past few years led to the federal de-listing of the Bald Eagle in 2007.