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Inland Northwest’s eagles a wildlife success story

A bald eagle looks for fish along the shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene on Nov. 27, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A bald eagle looks for fish along the shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene on Nov. 27, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Over the past few weeks, bald eagles have been gathering on the larger Inland Northwest lakes to feed on the spawned-out kokanee salmon. On Dec. 8, 213 birds were counted around Lake Coeur d’Alene’s Wolf Lodge Bay. By the following week, the count was 257, a near-record. The birds are feasting on what is estimated to be the largest kokanee run in 20 years and in the process, their majesty leaves us in awe.

We weren’t always so lucky to have this beautiful show on our doorsteps. Between the late 1800s and the 1960s, the bald eagle population in the continental U.S. dropped from an estimated 100,000 birds to just 400 breeding pairs. In 1979, the Idaho Fish and Game Department recorded only 11 nesting territories in the state. The birds had been under protection first in 1918 with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and in 1940 under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act but it wasn’t enough. While the laws protected the birds from hunting, they were decimated by conflicts with humans in their habitat, lead shot picked up in carrion they ate and most profoundly by the presence of the pesticide DDT in the food chain. DDT caused the shell of eggs to thin so much that they failed and the chicks they held died. On July 4, 1976, the bird was listed on the Endangered Species List.

Over the next 20 years, the birds began to recover. DDT was banned in the 1960s and lead shot for hunting migratory birds was outlawed in 1991, improving the survival rate for the birds. Stronger protection for their habitats reduced human-to-bird conflicts and raised awareness of the birds’ lifecycle. They recovered so quickly that in 1995 their status was reduced from endangered to threatened and in 2007, the birds were delisted from the Endangered Species List. By then there were 400 pairs of breeding eagles in Idaho.

So where do the birds go after they have had their fill of kokanee? Usually they will return to their nesting sites to prepare for the breeding season. Each pair of eagles mates for life and they return to the same nest each year. Nests are built of sticks in the tops of tall conifer or deciduous trees along rivers and lakes. The nesting pair adds new sticks each year, which means that the nests can eventually weigh hundreds of pounds. The female will lay two to four eggs a few days apart and then incubate them for five to six weeks. The eaglets hatch over a several-day period to ensure that if disaster strikes the first chick, there will be another one to take its place. The eaglets fledge at about 10 to 12 weeks of age.

Bald eagles don’t acquire their signature white head until they are about 4 years old. They maintain a brown color flecked with white until then. Hence the two colors of birds we see at Wolf Lodge Bay.

For more information check out the Bureau of Land Management’s webpage at www.blm. gov/programs/fish- and-wildlife/wildlife/ about/idaho.

Pat Munts is co-author, with Susan Mulvihill, of the “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Munts can be reached at pat@

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