Monday, July 06, 2009

DC Bald Eagle Nest Threatened by DHS Project

For a long time, I knew or suspected that there was a pair of Bald Eagles nesting within the District of Columbia, but I did not know the location. Well, I finally learned where it is, but for unhappy reasons. The nest is located on the grounds of the former site of St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a 19th-century psychiatric hospital located in southeast Washington. In the winter of 2001, a pair of bald eagles built a nest at the site and have nested each year since then. This pair was the first to nest in DC since 1946. I think it likely that these are the adult eagles that I often saw perched or flying along the Anacostia River, at places like Haines Point and the National Arboretum.

Now that nest may be at risk. A few years ago, the federal government decided to reuse the abandoned federal facilities as a new national headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security. That, by itself, makes some sense. Abandoned historic buildings are more likely to be maintained if they are being used actively rather than sitting empty, and a new federal building could potentially bring jobs to the surrounded neighborhoods, which are among the poorest in DC. The problem is not so much the headquarters as the access road.

The government says a centralized control center would streamline its response to a national emergency by bringing thousands of federal workers under one roof, with a new access road to handle most of the traffic.

But the road would run through 200 acres of protected wildlife habitat, wiping out a dozen acres of trees. That, some fear, could drive off the only pair of eagles intrepid enough to call Washington home. "They used to be here, they weren't here for many years and now they're back. It makes me feel better knowing something is coming back," Stephen Syphax, a National Park Service ranger, said one morning as he walked through the woods near the eagles' nest....

The two are what scientists call "urban eagles," displaying an unusual willingness to tolerate levels of human activity they avoided for decades -- understandably, considering the threat man posed.

The question of just how much more noise and habitat destruction the eagles will withstand has been simmering for months, putting the emblem of America's strength at the center of a post-Sept. 11 dilemma: balancing natural resources and national security.
That indeed is the question: how much disturbance these urban eagles are willing to tolerate before abandoning the nest. Since this pair has stayed at the site for eight years, they are clearly tolerant of human activity and have the skills to survive and breed in a dense urban atmosphere. However, given that the hospital grounds have seen very little activity for most of that time, it is difficult to predict how the eagles might react to sudden changes to the landscape, especially a change as drastic as the construction of a long access road. I would prefer not to see this question put to the test, especially when there are viable alternatives. The department ought first to try refitting one or more of the hospital's existing entrances to meet current standards. This would provide them with the security they need and avoid harming our national symbol in the process.

Even if you do not click through to read the article, make sure to take a look through the accompanying photo gallery.