BOOTHBAY HARBOR — Chris Kenty and Jim Walters came from Philadelphia for Maine Audubon’s 50th annual bald eagle cruise on Merrymeeting Bay, but not for the novelty of seeing the majestic bird. They came to see dozens of bald eagles.

Jim Walters of Philadelphia looks through binoculars to find a bald eagle during last month’s “Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting Bay” tour. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

“On any given day you can see a bald eagle in Philly,” Walters said. “But you can go your whole life in Philadelphia and never see 50 at once. It’s a different experience.”

Forty-seven bald eagles were counted on the five-hour cruise in late September. That’s a far cry from the early years of the cruise, when few, if any, bald eagles were seen.

The recovery of the bald eagle is one of the most notable successes of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. This year, the state counted 717 active nesting pairs of bald eagles in its aerial survey, an increase of 13 percent since its last survey in 2013. Only 31 pairs were counted in the state’s first survey in 1976.

Today there are an estimated 143,000 bald eagles across the country, compared with just over 400 nesting pairs in the continental U.S. in the 1960s.

In light of the eagle’s rebound, conservation groups in Maine are concerned about changes the Trump administration is proposing that could weaken the Endangered Species Act. They are waiting anxiously for the Interior and Commerce departments to go through public comment received last week about those proposed changes.

“We are very concerned about letting economic factors guide the ESA and lead to fewer species being listed,” said Eliza Donoghue, Maine Audubon’s senior policy advocate.

Among the proposed rule changes are those allowing economic impact to be a deciding factor in whether to provide protection to a species, rather than letting the decision be guided by science. The proposed rule changes also could make it more difficult to list critical habitat for endangered species, which conservationists say is key in their recovery. And the proposed rules could limit the impact of climate change as a consideration.

An immature bald eagle flies across treetops on Merrymeeting Bay on Sept. 22. The young eagles are smaller and don’t yet have the trademark white or “bald” head. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

There are 2,344 species on the threatened and endangered species lists, and 85 species that have been delisted, said Gavin Shire, chief of public affairs at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eleven species have gone extinct, he said.

Maine Audubon sent hundreds of letters from its members during the public comment period that ended on Sept. 24. It also sent a letter signed by 500 members to Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King. And Maine Audubon officers met with representatives from King’s and Collins’ offices to discuss the issue.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine did the same, and asked its 20,000 members to write to the two federal departments.

Tom Abello, spokesman for The Nature Conservancy in Maine, said many species in Maine have benefited from the ESA, such as Canada lynx and Atlantic salmon.

Doug Hitchcox, a staff naturalist with Maine Audbuon, raises his binoculars as Margaret Reimann points out a bald eagle while they ride on a tour boat during “Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting Bay.” Staff photo by Gabe Souza

“Generally speaking the ESA is one of the bedrocks of environmental law,” Abello said. “At its base level it’s about preventing extinction of threatened and endangered species, and protecting the habitat those species depend on.”

Meagan Racey, public affairs specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said reviewing the proposed rules could take up to a year.

In a July 19 news release issued by the service and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration – which are charged with protecting threatened and endangered species – the ESA was called “very confusing to navigate.”

“We are proposing these improvements to produce the best conservation results for the species while reducing the regulatory burden on the American people,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan said. “We encourage the public to provide us additional feedback to help us finalize these rules.”

Maine conservation groups also are worried about the transparency of the rule-making process.

“From other rollbacks we’ve seen in the Trump administration, it doesn’t seem they take public comment very seriously,” said Emmie Theberg of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It’s hard to know what the next step is.”

Collins’ and King’s offices did not return requests for comment on this story.

Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, said he is reviewing the administration’s proposals.

“Wildlife is part of Maine’s brand,” Poliquin said in an email. “It is important we strike the right balance when it comes to protecting endangered species and I look forward to working with my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, should any legislation be voted on in the House of Representatives.”

Richard “Dick” Anderson, former executive director of Maine Audbuon, looks through his binoculars for a bald eagle during “Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting Bay,” a Maine Audubon-sponsored trip, on Sept. 22. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, in a statement that was read on the Maine Audubon eagle cruise, praised the Endangered Species Act as the reason for the comeback of this “American icon” and said the law needs protection.

“I’m afraid of a new chapter that is now being written as efforts are underway, both in Congress and under the current administration, to weaken the Endangered Species Act and other protections,” Pingree said. “Now is not the time to undo the progress we have made. In fact, with climate change and other environmental threats before us, we need these laws more than ever – not just for bald eagles, but also for the hundreds of wildlife species that remain on the threatened and endangered lists.”

The annual eagle cruise on Merrymeeting Bay was a perfect opportunity to remind the public of the work done by the Endangered Species Act, said Jeremy Cluchey, Maine Audubon’s communication director.

The freshwater tidal bay that lies in Sagadahoc, Lincoln, and Cumberland counties had 85 nesting pairs of bald eagles counted in the state survey, which is not even the most in Maine. In the Down East region, 156 nesting pairs were counted in Washington County and 114 were counted in Hancock County.

However, for the 85 people on the Audubon cruise the number of eagles seen offered a truly wild snapshot of nature.

“Thanks to important pieces of legislation, like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, those waters have been cleaned, fish have returned and where there is food, you’ll find eagles,” Maine Audubon naturalist Doug Hitchcox said.

In 1995, the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of endangered species and downgraded to a threatened species. In 2007 it was removed from that list.

The annual Maine Audubon fall boat trip started as a cruise to see ducks in Merrymeeting Bay. Those first years, trip leader Dick Anderson said, few eagles were seen. In the next 10 to 15 years, bald eagle sightings on the annual cruise were low. But as the species recovered the annual boat trip became famous as an eagle-watching cruise.

In the past 20 years, the trip has recorded as many as 40 to 50 eagles each time.

“I can tell you 50 years ago, nobody would have believed one day we’d get to over 700 bald eagles nesting in Maine,” Anderson said.

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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