Bald eagles present hurdle for Ordean expansion

The Duluth school district can use eminent domain to buy some Duluth residents out of their houses for school expansions, but district officials may face a tougher time with one neighbor just west of Ordean Middle School.

The Duluth school district can use eminent domain to buy some Duluth residents out of their houses for school expansions, but district officials may face a tougher time with one neighbor just west of Ordean Middle School.

A pair of bald eagles has taken up residence in a white pine in a wooded area where school officials hope to expand sports fields at Ordean, which would become the new eastern high school under the long-range facilities plan.

Birders say the eagles used the nest to successfully raise chicks in 2005 and 2006 and often were seen near the Ordean baseball and soccer fields, sometimes perching on the dugouts.

"People go out there just to watch those eagles," said Bill Cortes, a retired teacher and assistant baseball coach at East. "I remember one game, it must have been about the fifth inning, and one of the adults came flying over with a great big trout in its mouth, taking it back to the nest. The game came to a standstill while everyone watched that thing fly over."

The pair could return from their winter migration as early as next month to raise another batch of young. But even if the birds don't come back this season, the nest is off-limits to development under federal law for several years.


"We knew they [the eagles] were there," said school district property manager Kerry Leider. "We know it's something to consider .... And we knew going into an undeveloped area we would have issues with slope and terrain and hydrology. But that was the option that involved the least homeowners .... Going west seemed to make more sense.''


Eagles nationwide last year officially soared off the federal endangered species list after a 40-year recovery from near extinction. The big birds remain protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Under the act, it is a federal offense to kill, harass or "disturb'' an eagle or active eagle nest.

Because nesting eagle pairs often build several nests, choosing one each spring when they return to the area, an eagle nest is considered active for at least five years after its last use.

Any attempt to cut down the nest tree would be illegal, said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The nest and the tree would have to stay .... Beyond that, it's really up to the specific situation on how close [development] could get and not be considered a disturbance,'' Throckmorton said.

Federal guidelines try to convince property owners and developers to generally avoid eagle nests by leaving as much buffering greenspace as possible -- ranging from 330 to 660 feet depending on the terrain and tree cover. But Throckmorton said eagles have adapted to close contact with humans, even nesting in downtown Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.



The Ordean eagles already contend with activity at the nearby sports fields. In fact, a VFW team recently renamed itself for the birds because they've become part of the home-field environment.

John Rudolph, coach of the Ordean Eagles summer VFW baseball team, said the team was known as the Hounds until last year when it was renamed the Eagles for the big birds nesting in the pine trees overlooking right field.

Rudolph went so far as to buy his VFW players T-shirts with an eagle on the front as a motivational tool.

Rudolph, varsity baseball coach at Duluth East High School and a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Lincoln Middle School, said he's "a complete supporter of the red plan and what the school district is doing,'' but he has enjoyed seeing the bald eagles around the baseball diamond and would miss them.

"In terms of destroying that type of habitat, I think that's a negative because it's not often that we get bald eagles in town, but they deal with habitat loss all the time,'' Rudolph said. "They've been part of the ambiance, the mystique, the history and they've added to the fans' love of the baseball field.''


Because the Ordean eagle pair is accustomed to sporting events held nearby, that could mitigate the need for a large buffer area. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field biologists probably will make a call on the issue before construction plans advance.


It's not clear if district officials and consultants might have to change their sports field plans for the Ordean property to accommodate the eagles, or if it might force a larger change in school district plans, Leider said.

"We aren't that far along to know precisely where we would put each field, or how close we would be to that tree,'' he said.

Eagle numbers have rebounded from a low of about 420 nesting pairs in the contiguous 48 states in the 1960s to 11,040 pairs today. That includes more than 1,312 pairs in Minnesota, the most of any state outside Alaska, and nearly 1,200 pairs in Wisconsin.

In addition to federal protection, the eagle's comeback also was credited to a federal ban on DDT, enacted in 1972. The pesticide was accumulating in the fish and animals eagles ate and was rendering eagle eggs too thin to survive hatching.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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