The enormous bird perched atop a weathered, dead tree overlooking an expansive swamp signified success.
My wife Kathleen and I spotted the bird as we drove by the swamp last March.
Its stark white head made the bald eagle stand out from the drab brown background of thick wetlands grasses.
I’ve seen eagles many times throughout the state, but most of the encounters were planned — excursions to places where they had been known to inhabit with the sole purpose of getting a glimpse at our national symbol.
But the sighting last March was different and encouraging. The fact that we were able to spot an eagle “out of the blue,” so to speak, much like the way we see a few deer or a flock of turkeys while driving a backroad, told me that eagles in Pennsylvania are doing better.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission board reaffirmed that notion last week when they voted to remove the bald eagle from the state’s threatened species list and reclassify it as “protected.”
While removing the bald eagle from the threatened list is proof that it has made quite a comeback, giving it protected status ensures the eagle will continue to enjoy protections provided by the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act. Regulations will continue to restrict activity near eagle nests.
The move to delist the bald eagle serves as undeniable evidence that the state’s current threatened and endangered species act — the one that the gas and coal industries (among others) wants to change — does, in fact, work pretty well.
Here’s what it did for the bald eagle:
Because the bald eagle was listed as threatened, the Game Commission designed a management plan for the species with a goal of bringing it back — that’s the intent for all the species that are considered threatened or endangered in the state. Money and time were directed toward the eagle’s recovery, and nest locations were documented and monitored.
A plan was put in place with several criteria that needed to be met for five consecutive years before the bald eagle could be delisted, including a minimum of 150 active nests statewide, successful pairs in at least 40 counties, at least a 60-percent success rate of known nests and productivity of at least 1.2 eaglets fledged per successful nest.
With 271 documented bald eagle nests in 57 counties last year, along with an average of 1.2 fledglings per successful nest, that criteria was met.
It’s a remarkable achievement considering that in 1983 only three bald eagle nests were known to exist in Pennsylvania — basically equating to six adults.
Thirteen years later, there were 101 eagle pairs nesting in the state, producing 172 young. Last July in the northeast region of the state, 12 new eagle nests were reported to the PGC and more were suspected.
The recovery was well underway.
Still, the delisting of the bald eagle doesn’t mean the bird no longer faces any threats. In December, a Wildlife Conservation Officer picked up an injured bald eagle in Lebanon County that was also suffering from lead poisoning.
And in May, two bald eagles were shot and killed in the western part of the state, in addition to another that was shot in Lancaster in November 2012.
And just because the eagle isn’t considered threatened anymore, it doesn’t mean that it will now be ignored by the Game Commission. The agency will still enforce the federal protections in place and nests will continue to be monitored until at least 2017.
But now, the biggest difference when it comes to bald eagles is you never know where or when you may spot one. The next time you drive a backroad or spend time along a river or lake, keep an eye open for bird that is not only our national symbol, but one that is a true success story of wildlife management.