30th Anniversary of Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve -- a wake-up call

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I would be pleased to help with any redirection of attention to bring greater protection to the Chilkat River's diminishing salmon runs.  Without strong healthy fish runs the forests, the oceans, our eagles, bears and wolves simply cannot survive. 

A point of conflicting interest arises.  Alaskans and others keep perpetrating the old truth and now myth about the Chilkat being the largest gathering of eagles in the world.  That was 30 years ago.  With the steady decline of salmon spawning success along the Chilkat and many of the other Alaskan and northern British Columbia rivers during the intervening years, the northern eagles have had to change their wintering patterns.  During the last few years, when the southeastern Alaskan fish runs have been way down in numbers, the largest bald eagle wintering grounds have steadily and dramatically shifted south from the high point being the shores of the Chilkat to now the highest concentrations being annually along the Chehalis Flats entering the Harrison River (Harrison Mills) and adjacent rivers just a few miles east of Vancouver, BC. 



In the fall of 2010 my December count of eagles along about 1.5 miles of the Harrison River was 7363 eagles individually counted -- with many dips in the river and the backside of trees probably housing another 2500 to 3000 eagles.  This not only makes this by far the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world but perhaps the largest gathering of any raptor in such a confined area.  The 2011 winter count was just over 5000 eagles.  The adjacent rivers running into the Fraser system and the lower Fraser Valley suburban farmland have also witnessed huge increases of eagles.  In both the 2010 and 2011 seasons it was reported by most fisheries monitoring groups that the chum salmon runs of SE Alaska and the length of the BC coast were down 50 to 80 percent -- simply leaving few fish in the northern rivers for the wintering eagles.  The eagles moved south early and in bigger numbers to find food in our more temperate ice-free rivers.  The southern rivers also still contained some moderately good fish spawning levels that also spawn later in the fall.

The purpose of this note is to try and break the complacency - the perpetration of the Chilkat myth. The old truism that the Chilkat housed the largest concentration of wintering eagles has not been true for some years.  We all keep re-stating this myth and I now think this is contributing to the complacency in our conservation efforts.  If we keep saying our Chilkat system is doing better than it really is, then quite possibly we are preventing the full attention being brought to bear on resolving the river's plight.  Twenty years ago even the Squamish River systems at Brackendale just north of Vancouver had annual eagle counts higher than the Chilkat and that system like so many has suffered catastrophic ecological poisoning in recent years with decimation of both salmon and eagle populations.  In more recent years we have been undertaking annual counts along the Harrison River system, including the Chehalis Flats, and here we have recently found sections of the river with huge spawning and eagle concentrations.

So we who love the Chilkat and its incredible ecosystem need a reality check -- our Chilkat River is in trouble and we need to quit saying it is the most productive when it is suffering severe declines in salmon, oolichan and eagles. Perpetuating the myth to protect our tourism is counterproductive.  We quickly need to evaluate the impact on our river from upstream mining, tourism, roads and native and sports fisheries along with what is happening offshore to water quality and fishing harvests where the salmon develop.  Our Chilkat needs a reality check, not continue to hide behind an old myth.

As a Trustee of the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines, AK watching the steady decline of the Chilkat's salmon reproductive capacity is very discouraging.  Whether the blame for the declining salmon runs is the result of oceanic or riverine causes, or most likely collectively both, we face the urgent need to quickly assess and provide action on how to return the Chilkat to its old glory.

The fact that as a Trustee of the ABEF I can no longer say we have the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in North America along the Chilkat is disconcerting.  We need to immediately address the issues within our Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve to build back the ecology of this important River to return the salmon and eagles to former numbers.  The actions needed, like all ecologically rooted problems, will take effort along many fronts.

The American Bald Eagle Foundation is presently seeking funding for more ecological studies to support this incredible river system.

I am pleased to do what I can to assist this effort.

Thanks.

David Hancock, ecologist & eagle biologist.

Trustee:  American Bald Eagle Foundation:   http://www.baldeagles.org/
Director:  Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival:  http://fraservalleybaldeaglefestival.ca/
Director:  Hancock Wildlife Foundation:          http://www.hancockwildlife.org/

Also see:   Rivers Without Borders:                http://riverswithoutborders.org/

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