Enough Eagles


Some in Homer say feeding debases and endangers a proud bird

Tom Kizzia / Anchorage Daily News / May 2, 2004


The furor started with a report last January of an attack on a dog out for a neighborhood walk on a leash. A lurking eagle swooped down and sunk its talons into the Labrador's haunch while the owner hit the pavement screaming.

Federal and state biologists who interviewed the dog owner after she chased away the eagle called her story very unusual, given that the dog outweighed the bird by at least five times. But angry Homer residents were soon marching on City Hall to call for a ban on the growing backyard practice of feeding eagles.

Complaints had been rising about the number of eagles attracted to town. Pet owners were calling state troopers to say they were afraid to open their doors with white-headed scavengers loitering thuggishly nearby. They asked if an attack on a small child might be next.

"People call me all the time," says Lee Mayhan, who started a group called Alaska Eagle Watch Network to promote more natural raptor lifestyles. "Yesterday there was a lady right in the middle of town feeding eagles french toast. That's no way to treat wildlife."

But Homer's outspoken environmentalists, united on such local debates as shallow gas development and big-box stores, are split on the eagle question. Reformers are up against a popular local institution. For more than 20 years, the "Eagle Lady" has been feeding hundreds of eagles in winter from her trailer compound on the Homer Spit.

Jean Keene, now 80, once told a reporter she didn't believe in the adage "let nature take its course." People had taken much from wildlife, she said, and she wanted to give something back. Keene and her helpers tote 30 tons of frozen cannery waste to the beach every year, drawing photographers and spectators to Homer along with the eagles, and contributing a big dollop of color to countless television and newspaper travelogues.

Thirty years ago, a Christmas bird count might find a dozen bald eagles in Homer. Lately the peak is 500 or more.

On the beach in front of Keene's trailer, mountains and sea provide a backdrop for close-up photos that have come to dominate the world of bald eagle pictures.

FEEDING A PROBLEM?

Less commonly photographed is the industrial zone of the Spit at the photographers' backs, where hundreds of gorged eagles linger atop light poles, fuel storage tanks and radio antennae in a Hitchcockian spectacle of nature gone mad.

In the eyes of the law, feeding eagles is no different than feeding chickadees -- as long as it doesn't endanger the federally protected birds. Keene's operation has drawn only an occasional harrumph from biologists. She says she has shortened her feeding season over the years so the birds will disperse in April and nest.

In the past two years, however, the feeding zones around Homer have multiplied. Biologists say they've heard reports of eight to 12 backyard locations where private individuals have started setting out food to draw birds, either for fun or to entertain bed-and-breakfast guests. Professional photographers have started their own feeding operations, flipping frozen herring in the air to create perfect moments for clients in photo seminars. (Some advertisements on the Internet, for seminars costing $1,500 a week plus lodging and meals, say the eagles "congregate" in Homer every winter but don't mention feeding.)

"I wasn't so concerned when Jean was just doing it, but this year we started getting calls right and left," says Dave Roseneau, a federal bird biologist with the Homer-based Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Critics say the gathering of eagles means extra predation on sea ducks and other birds; it also exposes birds to disease and power lines and may be shifting natural population balances by helping weak juveniles survive.
Defenders of feeding say the critics are overwrought.

They call the practice harmless, saying there is no scientific evidence of population shifts or other unnatural consequences. They praise Keene for rescuing injured birds, which are sent to Anchorage for rehabilitation. The boost to off-season tourism doesn't hurt, either.

"My first concern is the birds," says Keene. "As much as I've been feeding and around them, never has there been any attempt to attack somebody."

But even Keene says she's getting worried about the consequences of unregulated feeding. Like other eagle lovers, she worries that the national bird may be slipping in stature when people start to revile it as a neighborhood pest.

A TOWN DIVIDED

By some reckoning, the current battle over eagles began a few years ago on a Skyline Drive homestead above Homer.

Ed Bailey, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, has patched together a 600-acre "nature preserve" since his retirement. He started raising cackling Canada geese, dug ponds to attract ducks, and spread corn on a hay field and set out decoys to draw sandhill cranes.

Several years ago, he sold a piece of land and a house to a friend and fellow conservationist, Steve Tarola. The two saw eye-to-eye on snowmachines and jet skis. But Tarola, it turned out, liked to feed birds, including eagles.

"Little did I know who I was selling to," says Bailey, a dogged and unbending environmental campaigner who is no longer on speaking terms with his old friend and closest neighbor. Bailey felt the eagles, visiting the area for food, were popping over to his fields to check out the dessert buffet. He said he's lost young geese to eagles and seen the flocks of cranes driven away in fear. He scans the skies nervously every day, sometimes seeing 10 or more eagles wheeling overhead "like buzzards."

"Of course I'm bitter. You can't have a concentration of predators like that and not have repercussions," says Bailey, who once studied eagles in the Aleutians and published an ornithological paper about golden eagles in the Shumagins.

"I used to think of the eagle as part of our pristine environment," he says. "Now I think it's a Dumpster diver."

Tarola sees things differently. Feeding hasn't been shown to hurt the eagles and brings enjoyment to people, he says. He says he has cut way back to placate his angry neighbor and never fed in summer anyway. He says experts he has consulted tell him the eagles won't come back in summer if they're not being fed -- the problem of attracting predators is Bailey's own making, they say.

"It seems to me a social problem more than a biological problem," says Tarola about eagle feeding. That was essentially the middle-of-the-road position taken last winter by the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society: educate the public and gather more information. Tarola sits on the conservation society board. So did Bailey, but he resigned when it wouldn't take a stronger stand.

What does "social problem" mean?

"It means some people don't like it," Tarola said. "It also means anything that endangers eagles should not be done."

Bailey says he has polled 40 bird experts and organizations around the country and found only one who saw any value in feeding a healthy and growing eagle population. Bailey, Mayhan and the Anchorage Audubon Society have asked the city to adopt laws restricting feeding. They also want the state Board of Game to add bald eagles to the list of animals illegal to feed.

A similar issue is being raised in a state game refuge in Haines, where a guide wants to use bait to attract eagles gathered in winter for a natural salmon run.

"This is baiting, not feeding, when they're perfectly capable of feeding themselves," Mayhan said. "Is this what you want to show tourists, this circus?"

LOCAL REGULATION PONDERED

Late in April, Keene quit feeding for the winter and the eagles started to disperse.

Keene met with a reporter in a booth in the Land's End Resort bar marked by a plaque that said "Jean's Booth." The hotel, which ran "Eagle Safari" specials over the winter, says the visitors have been a nice boost.

"Jean is a celebrity around the country," said hotel manager Dawn Schneider. "People around here don't know that, because Jean is an unassuming woman."

Keene said she would support some kind of local regulation.

"The problem has been people doing it on their own, in bad places for the birds," she said. Another small operation on the Spit was closed down by troopers last winter, she said, because it was drawing birds into car traffic.

Federal biologists use Keene's viewing station to rescue eagles that have been reported hurt. But they sometimes wonder if the birds -- hit by cars, chased by dogs, halibut hooks in their craws -- wouldn't need rescue if they didn't come to the Spit to feed.

"Some of them were injured because they were out on the Spit," says Roseneau.

The most dramatic eagle rescue came in 1995, after the city installed new light towers in the Homer harbor. An eagle speared its wing on a lightning rod atop a 65-foot pole and flailed miserably. Firefighters resorted to calling up a local rock climber, Dino Banco, who two years earlier had been charged with criminal trespass for climbing the new light pole to unfurl an anti-oil banner. Banco ascended the pole with webbing and slings and carried down the anesthetized 14-pound eagle. But the spindled wing was too badly injured and the bird had to be euthanized, Roseneau said.

The bigger problem, officials say, is away from the Spit. Scores of eagles haunt the local landfill where the electric utility has had to install protective insulation on poles. Around town, Roseneau said, he had three dog-eagle calls in a single week.

"My husband and I were pretty annoyed," said Emily Ward, who was afraid to get a new puppy last winter because her Diamond Ridge yard was in the flight path of 10 eagles feeding at a neighbor's.

"We get calls from people saying 'I've got chickens and ducks. Can I shoot the eagle?' The answer is no," said trooper Sgt. Jim Hibpshman in Homer. He said he has yet to receive a defense-of-life-and-property case where someone shoots an eagle in a chicken coop. He's not sure how that one will be handled.

So far, Homer City Council members have expressed little interest in stepping into the melee.

Everyone agrees more data would be helpful. No survey of eagle nests around Kachemak Bay has been done since 1991, so no one can say if the summer population is growing.

"I think the effects in summer are less than some people think. But a survey would show us right off," Roseneau said.

Also useful, they say, would be studies on whether predation of small birds has gone up.

But the strongest argument for curbing the feeders, Mayhan says, may turn out to be not scientific but "moral." What will be lost if residents and tourists learn to see the presence of eagles as another sign of man? Will the natural wonder be siphoned away from the sight of a bald eagle wheeling up a Homer bluff thermal on a warm spring afternoon?


Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at tkizzia@adn.com or in Homer at 1-907-235-4244



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