Dams Help Bald Eagles Extend Range in Nevada

Published April 1, 2009

Animal biologists conducting their annual midwinter count of bald eagles around lakes Mead and Mohave are reporting growing numbers of the majestic birds in the two Colorado River reservoirs.

A preliminary tally of bald eagles in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area taken January 7 through January 14 found 108 adult and immature birds in the area. While the count is down slightly from the all-time high of 116 counted in 2008, it is well above the 60 identified when the count was standardized by the U.S. Park Service in 2001.

Staying the Winter

Biologists strongly suspect the bald eagles wintering in the areas southeast of Las Vegas came there from the Pacific Northwest and Canada. The big lakes behind the Hoover and Davis dams contain abundant fish and waterfowl on which bald eagles prey.

The rising number of bald eagles spending their winters in the area has prompted biologists to conclude the birds are no longer just stopping over at the lakes on their migratory journey to elsewhere. Instead, the lakes appear to be the eagles’ winter destination of choice.

“We think the lakes are part of a wintering range for a much broader group of eagles. We used to think we were a stopover for migration,” Jeff Jaeger, a biologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas Public Lands Institute and School of Life Sciences, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal for a January 29 story. “They are attracted to fish and a huge number of aquatic birds like coot,” Jaeger added.

Lakes Mead and Mohave are manmade bodies of water which, together with the Hoover and Davis dams, provide the surrounding area with hydropower and recreation. The affinity of bald eagles for the lakes indicates the dams are helping in the recovery of threatened species.

Protection Process Abused

According to R.J. Smith, director of the Center for Private Conservation, the bald eagle’s recovery was delayed by the cumbersome bureaucracy inherent to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) process.

“The recovery of the bald eagle and its delisting from the ESA is a major success story, although [the recovery] had almost nothing to do with the ESA,” Smith said. “Indeed, the recovery would have been speedier if the [Fish and Wildlife Service] had not made it so difficult for the states and private organizations to help restore populations in areas where the birds had disappeared.”

Smith added, “Even the final delisting of the now-numerous eagles was delayed as environmentalists wanted to keep the eagles on the ESA list in order to have the power to regulate land use.

“And following delisting,” Smith continued, “environmentalists in Arizona were able to get the desert population relisted, mainly in order to control activities involving water use. Again, this shows the ESA is directed more toward land-use control than species protection.”

Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.