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South Dakota bald eagles make a comeback

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A tree of eagles
Upstream from the Karl Mundt Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River near Lake Andes, South Dakota, there are often many bald eagles in trees. The Fort Randall Dam power generators are in the background.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

It's Mike Bryant's job to create habitat to improve the eagle population. He's the manager of the Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge near the Fort Randall dam.  As we drive across the Missouri River dam he points.

Eagle statue
Across the river near the refuge many eagles are in trees. This picture was taken from the public viewing area with a statue of the eagle in the foreground.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

"There's some in the trees over there," says Bryant.

He points to a half-dozen eagles of different sizes and coloring sitting in a cottonwood tree.  The tree hovers over open water below the dam.  It's a perfect spot for eagles to wait and watch for fish or other prey.  In some winters, as many as 200 eagles spend the cold months along the banks of the Missouri River.

Mike Bryant knows where to look for eagles and he explains the birds' behavior in a rather matter-of-fact way.  Bryant credits two things for bringing back the bald eagle from near extinction;  designating land as habitat and banning the pesticide DDT. 

"Once that (DDT) was banned the effort focused on protecting habitat, protecting areas that eagles have built nests, keeping human disturbance to a minimum in those areas," Bryant says.  "That mostly is all that it's taken.  They've done really well and they've come back very strong since DDT was banned especially."

Mike Bryant
Mike Bryant is manager of the Karl Mundt Wildlife Refuge near Lake Andes, South Dakota. He's standing at a designated eagle watching platform on the banks of the Missouri River.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

We're bumping along in Mike Bryant's truck, toward the nesting area. The last time I was here was in the spring of 1993.  I was covering a story about South Dakota's first nesting pair of bald eagles in more than a century.  I watched a pair of eaglets peek their prehistoric-looking heads above the nest through binoculars.  We were several hundred feet from the nest. It was an unforgettable and moving experience.  

In 1993, one nesting pair was successful.  Now there are more than 15 pairs of eagles nesting in this refuge.  Across South Dakota, about 50 pairs of eagles maintain active nests.  

Because it's not yet mating season, we can walk to the base of a cottonwood tree and look up,  to see just how big an eagle nest is.  This is a rare treat.  The Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge is closed to the public and hunting is not allowed.

As we approach the nest, three adult eagles circle overhead.  The nest is about 60 feet above us.  It's a massive weaving of thick sticks and other grasses that weighs about 1,000 pounds.

Eagle nest
This is a non-active bald eagle nest in a grove of trees in South Dakota's Karl Mundt Wildlife Refuge. Several adult eagles were flying in the area and wildlife refuge manager Mike Bryant predicts that they are preparing to use this nest again. The nest is in a cottonwood tree about 60 feet up. It is five feet deep and weighs about 1,000 pounds.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

Refuge Manager Mike Bryant says this is what's called an active nest.

"Now, they won't use the nest per say in the winter time, just strictly when they are going to lay and incubate hatch eggs and raise their young to flight stage," says Bryant.   The bald eagle was listed as an endangered species in 1978.  It's estimated that in the lower 48 states the eagle has recovered from about 700 nests to more than 9,000 nesting pairs today.

Bryant says he is surprised by the comeback the eagles made.  He feels people respect the bald eagle and will learn to adapt to its needs as the population continues to grow.