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In Vermont, the bald eagles are back

At the beginning of this century, there were no eagles nesting in Vermont. Now there are more than 40 pairs.

A bald eagle is perched on a rock in the  Blackstone River in Northbridge, Mass.
A bald eagle is perched on a rock in the Blackstone River in Northbridge, Mass.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

QUECHEE, Vt. — Along the banks of the Ottauquechee River, a bald eagle soared above the village’s iconic covered bridge the other day, a slew of ravens in hot pursuit.

If the return of bald eagles to Vermont has been welcomed by conservationists and ordinary residents alike, the ravens seem less enamored, regarding the eagles, like other raptors, as potential raiders of their nests.

Not that long ago, these sorts of avian dogfights, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, were unheard of in Vermont, as were sightings of eagles altogether. But now bald eagles are so common in Vermont that they are slated to be removed from the state’s endangered species list.

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The turnaround is stunning, and encouraging.

Two decades ago, there was no record of any bald eagles nesting in Vermont. Now, the state counts more than 40 pairs. In December, the Endangered Species Committee of the state’s Fish & Wildlife Department voted unanimously to remove bald eagles from that infamous list. The state Legislature is expected to formally approve that decision in the coming months.

As in other parts of the United States, the decline of the eagle population in Vermont was accelerated by the use of the pesticide DDT, along with illegal hunting and the destruction of natural habitats because of land development and tree removal.

The DDT washed into the rivers and other waterways, where it got into the fish that eagles consume. That contamination greatly weakened eagle eggshells, leading to a dramatic decline in hatchlings.

Bald eagles were declared an endangered species in the United States in 1972, but Vermont didn’t get around to putting them on the state’s own endangered list until nine years later, maybe because there were simply no eagles around to protect.

Doug Morin, a wildlife biologist in charge of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s project to recover endangered and threatened bird species, said the state reintroduced the bald eagle between 2003 and 2006, bringing eagles in from Massachusetts, Maine, and Maryland to the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area.

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After reintroducing the species, Vermont had its first successful nesting since the 1940s when a pair of eagles nested and produced an eaglet in 2008 in the Northeast Kingdom.

“We concentrated on legal protection and habitat protection,” Morin said. “With bald eagles, and for some of the waterfowl, when we protect them and their habitats, we can have some amazing results in a relatively short period of time.”

That encourages Margaret Fowle, a conservation biologist for Audubon Vermont who has been involved in the eagle recovery program from the beginning. She said the success of bringing the eagle back to Vermont holds lessons for other threatened and endangered species.

Fowle credited the late senator Jim Jeffords with securing the federal funding that allowed them to reintroduce eagles after Vermont was identified as one of the few states without any breeding eagles.

In Windsor, about 12 miles south of Quechee, there’s an eagle’s nest in Paradise Park, which includes Lake Runnemede and is a short distance from the Connecticut River, another favored spot for eagles.

An eagle floats above, circling that section of Windsor, quite regularly.

The locals say the eagles are a beautiful sight, though one man on State Street, bordering Lake Runnemeade, said the constant hovering presence has led him to keep his cat inside.

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Morin said he’s never heard of an eagle swooping down to snatch a cat, but added, “at this point, nothing would surprise me.”

Fowle said that although many expect the eagle to be removed from the state’s endangered species list, there are no plans to reduce efforts to monitor the eagle population, “so we can keep an eye on things. We don’t want to go below certain thresholds.” She said federal protections for eagles will remain in place.

Fowle demurred when I suggested she had the perfect name for someone dedicated to saving birds. She noted that the guy in Vermont Fish & Wildlife in charge of the deer population was named John Buck.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.