Kootenai Critters: Bald Eagles, from Endangered to Flourishing
Here’s what you need to know about this conservation success story in northwest Montana
This is the second in a series of blogs that we’ll be publishing monthly throughout the summer to showcase the wonderful wildlife of northwest Montana’s Kootenai National Forest (KNF). The KNF encompasses wild places like the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Scotchman Peaks, and Yaak Valley, and it’s also home to grizzly bears, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, westslope cutthroat trout, and so much more.
This summer, we’re making it easy to show off your Kootenai pride, even if you don’t live in northwest Montana. Take the quiz to discover your secret Kootenai critter identity, enter the monthly giveaway to win great outdoor gear (this month’s prizes are a Kelty daypack and a CamelBak water bottle), and sign the pledge to care for the future of the Kootenai National Forest.
We’ll send everyone who completes the quiz a free limited-edition hand-drawn sticker of their Kootenai critter identity! Monthly giveaway winners will also receive an enamel pin.
An emblem of fierce nobility. With a twist.
On June 20, 1782, the bald eagle became our national emblem when the great seal of the United States was adopted. Its majestic looks, uniqueness to North America, long life, and great strength won the day over other animal symbols such as the wild turkey (Benjamin Franklin’s choice).
The striking white head and tail of the adult bald eagle make it an easy bird to identify from a distance. The classic coloring doesn’t develop until the raptors are between four and five years old. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet and weighing in at about 10 pounds (mostly feathers), they are the largest raptor in North America. In the wild, an eagle might live to be 25 years old, though up to 80% die before they reach adulthood.
Although imbued symbolically with the characteristics of supreme power and authority, in reality, bald eagles can be less than majestic: they often feed on carrion, steal fish from smaller raptors, and have a chirping cry so silly and surprising that in movies they need to be dubbed over with the fierce call from a red-tailed hawk.
Caring partners and parents
Bald eagles generally mate for life. Part of the courtship may include the dramatic talon clasping “cartwheel display” where two eagles grab each other’s talons high in the air and tumble through the air until breaking apart at the last moment.
They look for nest sites in very tall trees, standing out above the surrounding forest, often near water. Both males and females help to build the nest, a giant mound of sticks lined with softer material. Nests may be reused and added to for several years, growing to 10 feet in diameter and weighing as much as 2,000 pounds!
Bald eagle parents take turns remaining with the young in the nest while the other brings prey home to feed the nestlings. Both male and female eagles will tear food into small pieces and feed it directly to the eagle chicks until they are old enough to begin pecking at food independently. The age of first flight is about 10-12 weeks.
Northwest Montana is ideal eagle habitat
The tall trees and stretches of large open water, like Lake Koocanus, and powerful rivers, like the Clark Fork, make it possible for bald eagles to fish all winter long. In other areas of Montana, eagles are migratory residents, but in the Kootenai National Forest there is a stable population of year-round bald eagle residents
Bald eagles are a conservation success story
In August 2007 the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of Threatened and Endangered Species in Montana and most of the rest of the continental United States. More than 500 breeding pairs now call Montana home, up from 12 pairs in 1978.
Bald eagles had long been victims of trapping, shooting, and poisoning, as they were perceived as a threat to livestock and as competition for wild game. In the 1950s a chemical known as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was introduced as a widespread insecticide and bald eagle populations started to plummet. DDT caused deformed eggs and nesting failure in eagles (and in other bird populations) as the eagles fed on fish who had been swimming in water contaminated with DDT runoff from nearby fields. In 1972, DDT was banned in the United States and the bald eagle was put on the newly created Endangered Species List. Habitat conservation and reintroduction efforts helped ensure the successful recovery of the bald eagle.
Now, communities in and near the Kootenai take pride in living with this most American of bird. A large eagle statue greets you as you enter the town of Libby, Montana, claws outstretched and ready to grab a fat fish from the Kootenai River that runs through town.
Help us protect animal habitat in the Kootenai and throughout Montana
MWA works to protect Montana’s wildest places, including the Kootenai National Forest and wildlands across the state, from the rolling prairie badlands of eastern Montana to the wild and roadless landscapes of the Great Burn stretching 100 miles along the Montana-Idaho border.
Join us in protecting Montana’s wild places and public lands. Make a donation today.