Conserving the Nature of America

News Release

Successful Bald Eagle Breeding Program at San Francisco Zoo Completed as Remaining Birds Fly East

June 19, 2007


Division of Public Affairs
External Affairs
Telephone: 703-358-2220

A highly successful bald eagle breeding program at the San Francisco Zoo that resulted in the reintroduction of over 100 bald eagles to the Channel Islands concluded on June 18 when nine adult birds took a donated FedEx plane ride to a new home at the American Eagle Foundation's (AEF) United States Eagle Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

The 16-year program was a successful partnership between the Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) that helped re-establish the national symbol in many areas of the west. Many other partners participated in the program over the years, providing funding and expertise to help the program become a success, including the Institute for Wildlife Studies, California Department of Fish and Game, Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, Ventana Wildlife Society, Bald Eagle Working Group, and the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP). Since 1991, more than 100 bald eagles from the Zoo have been re-introduced to the wild on the Channel Islands. The Zoo's program was the only large-scale captive breeding program for bald eagles in the western United States.

"The San Francisco Zoo has been a wonderful wildlife partner in restoring our national symbol," said Steve Thompson, California-Nevada Operations Manager for the Service. "The Zoo has again demonstrated how partners, in cooperation with the Service, are key to restoring healthy wildlife populations."

"The San Francisco Zoo is honored to have been associated with the recovery of the bald eagle in California and thrilled to know that these birds will continue to help the species recovery efforts in the Southern United States," said John Aikin, director of conservation at the Zoo. "We are extremely proud of the Zoos Avian Conservation Center staff who have performed vitally important work including research, field study, breeding and species management. It has been a thrilling and humbling experience for all of those involved."

Currently about 70 bald eagles live on the Channel Islands. In the last two years seven chicks have hatched naturally. Starting in 1991, bald eagles raised at the San Francisco Zoo were reintroduced to Santa Catalina Island. This reintroduction program was then expanded in 2002 to included releases on Santa Cruz Island.

This bald eagle reintroduction effort was funded by the MSRP, a multi-agency program dedicated to restoring natural resources that were harmed by the release of millions of pounds of DDTs and PCBs into the ocean by the Montrose Chemical Corporation and other industrial sources in southern California in the mid 20th century.

In 1990, the Service's Environmental Contaminants Program undertook an extensive Natural Resource Damage Assessment. After 10 years of negotiations a settlement was reached, and Montrose and the other defendants agreed to pay $140 million to offset the damage. The Montrose Settlements Trustee Council, a group of state and federal agencies which includes the Service, is responsible for using these funds to restore the natural resources (including bald eagles) injured by the pollutants.

Until 2006, the last successful bald eagle hatching in the wild on the Channel Islands occurred in 1949. By the early 1960s pollution, primarily DDT that caused thin-shelled eggs, had eliminated the birds from the islands.

The Avian Conservation Center (ACC) at the Zoo acquired its first female bald eagle for the captive breeding program in 1985 from a wild nest in California. Since that time, the number of birds has steadily increased. Most recently the ACC has cared for 10 breeding bald eagle pairs. Kathy Hobson of the ACC and curator John Aikin have been instrumental in the success of the breeding program.

Today California is home to an estimated 200 pairs of nesting bald eagles. Throughout the lower 48 states there are nearly 10,000 nesting pairs, a 50 per cent increase since 2000. The species reached its low point in 1963 when only 417 pairs could be found in the lower 48.

The Service is on track to make a final determination on the bald eagle's status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by June 29. It is currently a threatened species and the Service has proposed to remove it from that list because of its recovery. National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines and careful monitoring program would continue to protect the bird, as well as its status under the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

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