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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Agriculture crowds out bald eagles and other wildlife

The loss of two eagle chicks may seem small. The greater worry is that eagle nesting sites become fewer as shelterbelts disappear.

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Illustration/Mike Jacobs
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    Mike Jacobs.jpg
    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – Probably, the bald eagle is the only bird that just about every American would recognize on sight. It’s a big bird, sporting a wingspan among the widest in the bird world. It is distinctively colored, too, with a pure white head and a pure white tail. These are the marks of adult eagles. It takes a young eagle three years to acquire that plumage – thus eagles are known as “four-year birds.”

    The familiarity of the eagle doesn’t mean that people appreciate the bird, despite its role as a symbol of the nation – not even people who live among eagles and who profess to be inspired by them.

    That sad truth was on display last week, when a local farmer paid a fine for disturbing a pair of nesting eagles. He essentially destroyed the shelterbelt the birds had chosen for a nesting site, relying on the totality of the tree stand to hide their nest and allow them room to bring their young from helpless nestlings to juveniles capable of soaring flight.

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    He left a few of the trees standing – but so few that the eagles became uncomfortable and abandoned the nest. For that, he paid a $5,000 fine. Disturbing nesting eagles is a violation of federal wildlife law. The fine is at the low end of the possible penalties. His regret must have been sincere enough for the feds to let him off easy.

    The $5,000 is unlikely to discourage others from disturbing nesting eagles. Farm shelterbelts are being removed at breakneck speed all over the Red River Valley, and perhaps especially so in Grand Forks County, which once boasted the world’s largest concentration of shelterbelts.

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    The plain truth is that today’s industrial farmers don’t care about the protection from wind erosion that the shelterbelts provide, and no less for the wildlife habitat. They find shelterbelts a nuisance. They get in the way of today’s industrial scale tilling equipment, and they take up a few acres in a quarter section that could be tilled – especially if the farmer happens to control the adjoining quarter, making a mile-long stretch without having to turn the steering wheel on the tractor.

    Plus, getting rid of the shelterbelts frees acres for tilling, and those acres add to the overall yield and the overall income from the land.

    So, there's a motive to disturb the eagles.

    I don’t forgive the action in this instance, however. Clearing the shelterbelt could have waited until the eaglets had fledged and – with luck on their side – joined the breeding population of bald eagles.

    The loss of two eagle chicks may seem small. The greater worry is that eagle nesting sites become fewer as shelterbelts disappear. This follows an increase in eagle numbers in the area. A quarter century ago, the number of eagle nests could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Today, it would take hands and feet and perhaps several other appendages to tally the number of eagles nesting within a 50-mile circle centered on Grand Forks.

    When I began writing this column more than 40 years ago, the sighting of a single eagle fired the phone lines. Today, eagles are abundant enough that they don’t get the excited and enthusiastic response they once did.

    Eagles have their allies, however. Members of the Grand Cities Bird Club raised the alarm about the fate of this eagle nest, and helped pressure the feds to prosecute the responsible party.

    That’s a good thing.

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    But it didn’t save the eagles.

    Saving the eagles requires greater awareness.

    It’s important to remember, too, that the eagles were only one species impacted by the removal of a shelterbelt. Shelterbelts provide habitat for a variety of birds, from vireos to crows, eagles and herons.

    Not to mention the animal species, from raccoons to white-tailed deer.

    These losses are cumulative. And they are ongoing.

    More bad news

    The monarch butterfly has been added to the endangered species list. This is a migratory butterfly that has been common, even abundant, in North Dakota. When Suezette and I first moved to our place west of Gilby after the Flood of 1997, monarchs blessed our place. That’s because we let the milkweed grow, over the objections of some of our neighbors, who abhor the milkweed. I developed an animosity to milkweed, too, when it began to take over the garden, including my garlic patch. But I held that in check, and the monarchs flourished – until about five years ago, when numbers began declining. Last summer, very few monarchs showed up.

    These catastrophic declines in numbers have occurred throughout the monarch’s range but it’s especially catastrophic in the population west of the Rocky Mountains. One of their winter hibernation sites was near the headquarters of the company that owned the Herald, and whenever business took me there, I took time to see the monarchs.

    Most of the California sites that monarchs favored are emptied now. Monarchs have simply disappeared.

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    Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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