UPDATED 9:35 a.m. with further response from ISP
WILDLIFE WATCHING -- Bald eagle numbers continue to increase at Lake Coeur d’Alene in time for the annual Eagle Watch event Dec. 27-31.
However, an Idaho State Police trooper gave the boot to some eagle viewers and photographers parked in turnouts along State Route 97 on Monday.
Parking along the highway has occasionally presented a hazard, said Lt. Chris Schenck, ISP spokesman in Coeur d’Alene.
"We're still going to allow people to park there, but they must be off the highway and cannot cause a traffic hazard," he said. "Safety is our concern. We've had some near misses there in the past."
The eagles congregate in the Wolf Lodge Bay area from November into January to prey on spawning kokanee. Families and photographers from around the country flock to the area to see eagles perched in trees and swooping down to snatch the land-locked sockeye salmon from the water.
During the peak of the eagle gathering between Christmas and New Year, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Idaho Fish and Game sponsor an the Eagle Watch event based out of designated parking areas at the Mineral Ridge boat launch and the Mineral Ridge trailhead.
The areas will be staffed by eagle “ambassadors” to answer questions about bald eagles, explain their lifestyles and habits and assist visitors with high-powered spotting scopes for five days, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., starting Saturday, Dec. 27.
Eagle watching occurs at several areas, from boats and at Higgens Point accessible from Coeur d'Alene.
Most eagle viewers traditionally have driven 8 miles on Interstate 90 east of Coeur d’Alene to take the Wolf Lodge Exit toward Harrison. Several SR 97 turnouts along the lake are frequently used by photographers en route to the Mineral Ridge area.
But on Monday, some of them were evicted from roadside turnouts.
“An Idaho State Police officer showed up at Wolf Lodge Bay this morning and demanded that all the photographers move their cars from the turnouts along the water’s edge on the south side of the lake,” Matt Shelley said Monday. “People regularly use these turnouts to park, avoiding the mile-long walk from a parking area about one mile farther south.
“Apparently a number of the locals, some of whom are out virtually every day, were parked well beyond the white fog line (marking the edge of the highway). They objected to the officer’s order and were told they could move their cars or they would be cited or go to jail.
“Everyone left, including the ISP officer, but, of course, a new batch of eagle watchers who had not received the edict came along and once again filled the turnouts.”
"We had complaints of people in the roadway," Lt. Schenck said. A few cars were illegally parked, so the officers chose to clear out everyone, he said.
People cannot be posing a hazard to traffic as they park or walk along the road, he said.
BLM officials regularly warn eagle watchers to stay off SR 97. Apparently the thrill of watching the eagles makes them forget they’re on a state highway, they say.
“Each year hundreds of viewers travel to the Mineral Ridge area to take in the eagles, so the BLM would like to remind travelers to be extra cautious when driving, parking or walking along State Highway 97,” said Suzanne Endsley, BLM spokeswoman in Coeur d’Alene. “The travel way is not restricted, and pedestrians should be respectful of drivers by not walking in the center of the road or using the shoulder to scout for eagles,” she said in the media release for Eagle Watch week.
“People were not sure why this has suddenly become an issue,” Shelley said. “That long walk from the parking area is a fairly tall order given the heavy tripods, 600mm lenses and other equipment needed to get good shots of the eagles.”
“But in this case the officer said no parking at all was allowed in the turnouts.”
Spokane Valley photographer Craig Goodwin said he talked to some of the photographers that had been evicted.
"No cars were over the white line," he said. "Things apparently got pretty heated with threats of arrest because of the pushback from the photographers. The closure forced many more people to walk the shoulderless road. Probably not the best day in policing history."
Said Shelley, “People watching the eagles must park in the turnouts, not in the road, which I don't believe anyone would argue with. But the officer touched a nerve with the local eagle watchers, understandably, by effectively closing the turnouts to parking.”