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Conservationists, developers clash over eagle habitat in Virginia

However, they may soon be evicted.

That’s because Richmond County, which includes the expanse where the eagles make their homes, may approve a request from Diatomite Corporation of America (DCA) to rezone a large section of the cliffs, with the intention to build a sprawling resort with expensive housing and an 18-hole golf course smack-dab in the middle of eagle habitat, The Washington Post reports.

This is the land where indigenous tribes fired arrows on explorer John Smith as he sailed through in 1608, the land that federal troops occupied during the Civil War. This fall, the county board will consider whether to allow construction.

Conservation groups such as the Chesapeake Conservancy and Friends of the Rappahannock say that killing hundreds of trees will forever alter the scenery that Smith viewed before English settlers arrived.

It also stands to possibly damage what’s considered to be one of the most important communities for bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region. Hundreds of these magnificent birds call the place home, and as many as 20,000 visit each year to feast on herring, shad, and blue catfish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the Rapahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and it has also expressed concern regarding this.

“This is a global hot spot,” Bryan D. Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, a research group that studies nature and birds at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, told The Washington Post. “There’s no other place on the continent like the Chesapeake Bay for eagles, and this place is one of the most important places in the bay. It’s an eagle magnet.”

DCA plans to build a 1,000-acre development in the area of Fones Cliffs, reports. This will include a 116-room lodge, 18 guest cottages, academics and recreation, a 150-seat restaurant, championship golf course, equestrian center, 718 homes and a village on Luke’s Island.

The corporation told the county planning board that the development will add new jobs as well as added tax revenue to a county that’s still in recovery mode after the 2008 recession, Club and Resort Business reports.

Attorney Robert Smith, said that tax revenue would amount to millions of dollars. Conservation easements protecting virgin land from development yields $5.00 per acre in taxes for the county.

“Our property will generate approximately $9,000 per acre,” he said.

The IUCN Red LIst. which ranks the status of threatened species and places them in categories ranging from “Not evaluated” to “Extinct” has listed the bald eagle (Halieetus Leucocephalus) squarely in the “least concern” category.

Things haven’t always been this rosy for this iconic bird. Throughout the early history of the U.S., the birds were shot, trapped, poisoned, and the bird became so rare that Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, and this outlawed the killing or disturbing of eagles. It also outlawed the possession of eagle parts, including feathers, eggs, and nests National Geographic reports.

When studies showed that bald eagles didn’t harm salmon populations, The Bald Eagle Protection Act ended a bounty system in Alaska, that had resulted in at least 128,000 eagles being killed between 1917 and 1952. However, since many bounties were never collected, it’s very likely the number actually exceeded 150,000.

Then DDT entered the picture, and, although the pesticide was banned in the U.S. in 1972, in a just a 20-year period, it did so much damage that it was comparable to 175 years of persecution. It was so bad, in fact, that bald eagle populations hit a low point in 1963 when a nesting survey conducted in the lower 48 states found only 417 pairs.

When sweeping protections took effect in 1978 under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the bald eagle was listed as endangered in 43 of the lower 48 states and as threatened in the rest. There are an estimated 50,000 bald eagles in Alaska and these aren’t considered at risk, so they don’t receive protection under the act.

Fortunately, with enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, coupled with cooperation between wildlife agencies and conservation organizations on captive-breeding programs and reintroductions, and buoyed by citizen support, eagle numbers quadrupled in the lower-48 nesting populations between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. In 1995, the eagle’s endangered-species status was downgraded to threatened in all of these states.

If there’s one thing that seems to be clear, however, it’s that the birds prefer their privacy.

“The relationship between human development and the absence of bald eagles has been documented in various places across the country,” David Buehler, author of a monograph on bald eagles in the recently published Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century, per National Geographic.

“In general,” Buehler added, “eagles avoid developed areas, where their risk of mortality rises. Shooting, trapping, poisoning, collisions with man-made structures, scarcity of prey, and poor nesting and roosting habitat are among the dangers. I think it was the human persecution, however, that ultimately ‘taught’ eagles in an adaptive sense to avoid people.”

Care will need to be taken if the birds are to continue thriving. There are still plenty of threats to consider. Oil spills are one such danger. The the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 killed 250 eagles, and local populations didn’t recover until 1995. Poisoning from lead fishing sinkers is another problem that has killed eagles; and the aforementioned human encroachment can result in collisions with man-made structures and vehicles.

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For the eagles living on Fones Cliffs, it remains to be seen how they will fare if DCA continues with its project. Smith, however, says that the conservationists involved are part of “a cabal of interests,” including property owners who want to keep the remote landscape to themselves. Their opposition, he said, is part of a NIMBY movement — “not in my backyard.”

“You feel like you’re being shot at all the time,” he said, adding that the land that conservationists consider historic and pristine was once stripped of resources to fight the Civil War. Now, the eagle population is so plentiful that they appear to be everywhere in Virginia, he noted.

“It’s a false assumption that man and nature can’t co-exist,” Smith said.

However, it remains to be seen whether buyers will flock to this rural area, full of sprawling farms, sprawling tracts of land and ribbon-thin roads 35 miles from the small city of Frederickburg. The Washington Post notes that the largest road, two-lane Route 624 is traveled so infrequently that workers didn’t bother to paint a yellow stripe.

The proposal will go before the county board of supervisors in the fall, and the process could take a year. Its attraction to buyers is “something that needs to be determined as we go through the process,” said R. Morgan Quicke, Richmond County’s administrator.

Some are skeptical about the proposal.

Hill Wellford owns 2,200 acres that borders the river, and he says there’s no reason to think people will flood the area after bald eagles are chased from Fones Cliffs. So Wellford joined one of several conservation groups who are fighting the project. He also wrote a letter to the planning board and denounced the project.

“The vision is not to be against development, but to focus on how to protect esential natural features, spawning crabs and bird habitat,” he said. Wellford is a retired lawyer. He has ten active eagle nests on his property, and one day he recently watched two nesting bald eagles, and one was grasping a fish in its talons.

“You realize you’re seeing something special.”

The bald eagle is an icon with one wing in the future and the other wing in the past. With the proper precautions, these graceful birds may continue to fly free, and it is to be hoped that concern for their welfare will win out over a resort development

Note: This video shows how skillful a bald eagle can be catching a fish.


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