The Case of the Disappearing Bald Eagle

Brenda and I attended a conference about the Missouri River at Ponca State Park this weekend. One of the presenters (and his cohorts) deserves to be called out. His talk was based on a paper entitled, “Dynamics of plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides) forests and historic landscape change across the upper Missouri River, USA, Environmental Management,” published in 2010.

The study that led to the publication of this paper was initiated and funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) back in the days when the bald eagle was still on the endangered species list.  Congress has told USACE that they can bring no further harm to any endangered species in their management of the Missouri River. (In other words, they have to take endangered species into consideration as part of their logic for when and how they will release water from the six major reservoirs along the Missouri River.)

As part of their mandate they asked for input on the impact of the river management on bald eagles. One of the studies that the USACE paid for in full was done by the following people:

  • Mark Dixon, professor at the University of South Dakota
  • W. Carter Johnson, professor at South Dakota State University
  • Mike L. Scott, biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, currently stationed in Fort Collins, CO
  • Daniel E. Bowen, professor at Benedictine College, Atchison, KS
  • Lisa A. Rabbe, scientist in the employ of the USACE

The study is quite fascinating, and I suspect the results of the study will be quite helpful as policy decisions are made in the years after the 2011 flood along the Missouri River. One of the things they found is that if the river is managed in such a way that cottonwood forests are encouraged to thrive, the chances of massive destructive floods are reduced. That seems like a good thing to me.

But we taxpayers paid millions for this study specifically because of a mandate to study bald eagles. This study was proposed and carried out under the umbrella of bald eagle research.

Of course, early in the study the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list, so the urgency of the study was lost. (But the research went on!)

The study focused particularly on the transformation of cottonwood forests along the banks of the Missouri into more durable hardwood forests. Among the findings is that cottonwood forests support woodpeckers, ovenbirds, and certain songbirds while hardwood forests support Bell’s vireos and other songbirds. Because of how the Missouri River has been managed over the last fifty years, cottonwood forests are declining while hardwood forests are thriving. As a result, woodpecker and ovenbird populations are declining while Bell’s vireo populations are increasing.

After the paper was presented I asked, “How does the decline of cottonwood forests affect bald eagle populations?”

In one of those “You can’t make this stuff up” moments, Professor Mark Dixon got this deer-in-the-headlights look in his eye and said, “You know, that would be a good question to study.” He admitted that they never actually considered bald eagle populations in the study and that the study itself didn’t easily apply itself to bald eagle populations. It was much more applicable to song bird populations.

In fairness this gang of merry money spenders more recently received a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant for a study entitled, “Projecting Long-term Landscape Change along the Missouri River: Implications for Cottonwood Forests and Songbird Populations, Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation Cooperative.” So they are specifically capitalizing on the songbird connection, but I think we the taxpayers should demand that Dixon, Johnson, Scott, Bowen, and Rabbe return their millions of dollars (out of their own pockets!) from this study, which was foisted upon us as a bald eagle study.

And finally, the moral of the story: University professors would likely go extinct without massive federal funding and protection. The American Bald Eagle is quite capable of taking care of itself – cottonwoods or no cottonwoods … professors or no professors … government grants or no government grants.

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