It's never been a better time to be a bald eagle in New York.
At least, that's what the latest numbers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation show.
This week, the DEC announced there are an estimated 323 breeding pairs in New York, a record.
“New York state has been a leader in the restoration and recovery of the bald eagle in the northeastern United States," DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement, "and this news confirms that our rivers, lakes and forests are capable of supporting our nation's symbol for generations to come.”
To put the new numbers in perspective, the agency estimates there were 70 nesting pairs through the early 1900s.
Those numbers fell to just one pair by 1960, due to indiscriminate killing, competition for habitat and the impact of insecticides such as DDT. Eagles would eat prey contaminated with the chemical, which in turn caused egg shells to become so thin, they would not survive incubation.
The lone pair, which was not producing eaglets, was identified at Hemlock Lake in Livingston County, south of Rochester.
DDT was banned in 1972. Bald eagles were listed after the federal Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973.
Three years later, the DEC embarked on an ambitious program to repopulate the bird in New York. Biologists would import young birds from other states and hand-rear them to independence.
Over the next 12 years, DEC biologists collected 198 eagles not quite old enough to leave the nest. Most came from Alaska.
The eaglets were moved to suitable habitats, fed while they became accustomed to their new homes and released once they could fly. The process is called hacking.
By 1989, 10 breeding pairs had been established in the state. Having reach its goal, the DEC ended the hacking program.
The numbers have increased steadily, and the Hudson Valley has benefited in particular. Of the 442 territories in the state were a nesting pair is known to have bred at least once in recent years, 180 are found in the local DEC region, which includes Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester counties.
On Aug. 9, 2007, the bird was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species.
In New York, which has its own Endangered Species Program, the bird's status has been changed from endangered to threatened.
Federal law still prohibits the take; possession; sale; purchase; barter; offer to sell, purchase or barter; transport; export or import of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead.
There are now seven times as many birds across the state as there were prior to the introduction of DDT as an agricultural insecticide following World War II.
The DDT ban is not the only reason for the rebound. Between the colonial period and the industrial revolution, New York's vast forests were cleared to support agriculture.
"They typically don’t nest in the middle of farm fields," Scott Crocoll, a DEC biologist, said in an interview Wednesday.
In the last 100 years, the forests have returned in abundance. The tale is told in the old, stone walls that once divided the farms, now swallowed up by trees and vegetation.
"We were extremely successful" with the restoration program, Crocoll said, "but a lot of the credit has to do with the change in habitat and the birds themselves. They have exploded."
Some protection of habitat has been aided through acquisition via the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, which has been funded at a record $300 million for the second year in a row.
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