Conserving Wildlife, Delaware Bay

Greater Expectations For Wildlife


Hope For More

larry-niles bald-eagles restoration

The author on the left, holding a juvenile Bald Eagle getting it ready for release through a process called hacking

Tucked away among some long forgotten and useless legal papers, I found a newspaper clipping from July 13, 1988, on NJ’s Bald Eagle restoration program. The uncredited article for the Beacon, a defunct local paper serving Cape May County,  described our efforts to bring Bald Eagles back to the Delaware Bay.  As a young wildlife biologist for the Endangered Species Program, (and still sporting a full head of hair), I piloted this effort.

It was a grim time for Eagles then.  After decades of decline, the estimated original population of nearly 30 pairs, plummeted to just one nesting in the last great forest of Delaware Bay – Bear Swamp.  The lonely couple could not fledge young because within the female’s reproductive system lurked a syndrome of complications, that left their eggs too thin to withstand incubation.  Every year the monogamous couple, who mate for life failed to produce young,  yielding to the unyielding impacts of the persistent toxic chemical DDT.

eagle article

A 1988 newsprint article in the Beacon, a defunct local paper for Cape May on the NJ eagle restoration project led by this author. Click the link for a larger view.

Few remember that the 80’s were the beginning of the right’s assault on natural resource conservation and in particular declining wildlife.  Ronald Reagon and his ultra-conservative Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Ann Gorsuch Burfort (mother of the recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch) and Secretary of the Interior James Watt, led a wholesale assault on environmental protection and wildlife conservation, hiding it all under the rubric of landowners rights.  Euphemistically called the Wise Use movement, they spoke of ditching the Endangered Species Act, most wetland protection laws – in fact, most of the environmental achievements of the early 70’s.  Then as now, a juggernaut of the rich and powerful aimed to squeeze every cent from a rapidly impoverished ecological landscape on both private and public lands.  Funding went on the decline. Agencies laid off staff to both save funds and remove barriers for the schemers hoping to cash in on the new order.

The Beacon published the Eagle piece in 1988, almost exactly when the right was doing their worst to the land.  I’m writing this blog because of the last line in the article “Biologist hope to establish as many as 8 to 10 pairs of nesting eagles in NJ through this project”.  The NJ eagle population now stands at over 150 pairs!

So why this success in the climate of dismal expectations for wildlife? More important what can we learn from this wonderful success now in this time of rapidly diminishing hope for wildlife in the US.  Can we hope for more?


Deadly and Longlasting

The problems of using DDT were known since its first use in the 1940’s.  But it’s chief detriment persistence, was one of its chief assets in killing pest insects.  Farmers sprayed the chemical with abandon in the 1950’s and 60’s to kill farm pests eating grains and vegetables.  To some extent, it damaged populations of a great number of species.

But like a creeping contagion, it made its way into wetlands where it poisoned the freshwater and marine food chains.  Ultimately it ended up accumulating in most long-lived fish-eating birds, like bald eagles, where it stayed locked in tissue. As the animal aged the toxin accumulated until it reached a physiologic threshold that damaged female reproductive organs. The result?  Thin eggshells, infertility, declining eagle chick production and finally declining eagle populations.

DDT Silent Spring

The environmental classic, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson helped the public see the dangers of DDT

The fate of wildlife mattered to some, but things didn’t really change until Rachel Carson’s raised a vocal alarm with the publication of her 1962 classic Silent Spring.  The book laid bare the many impacts of the persistent chemical including those on humans. With the public aware of the very real threat to themselves, Congress finally banned it in 1972.  But like a bad dream, it lived on, its chemical half-life lasting decades.  The old eagles of Bear Swamp could not be helped. Sadly they continued to produce thin-shelled eggs well into the 80’s. Eagles needed new blood.



The Wind Beneath Their Wings

The article in my back closet described our efforts to introduce young eagle chicks from Canada using a time-honored falconry technique known as hacking.  The term describes a sort of soft release of young raptors giving them time to adapt from captivity to life in the wild without human contact.  They went into the hacking tower at 6 weeks old. At 11 weeks we opened their cages at night, so the next morning they were free.  After release and free from any human presence, they would slowly learn the skills of a young eagle just like those raised by adults, but like a pack of wild children teaching each other.

bald-eagle, released into the wild, restoration

A young Larry Niles and Division of Fish and Wildife Director Russ Cookingham look over a 6-week old bald eagle chick from Canada. (right). The chicks were transported to a hacking tower located along Delaware Bay near Fortescue, NJ


The hacking tower has four cages, each holding 2 eagles. The chick arrived at about 6 weeks and were cared for until 11 weeks without any direct human contact to insure against conditioning. When their flight feathers were fully grown, we would open the cages at night. The next morning the eagles were suddenly free.


bald eagle release through hacking

Once free the young birds stayed in the hack tower area for about a month and a half.  We placed fish at night on a small tower in the marsh and in the cages. In that time they would learn to fly and land, hunt, soar and all the other skills of a young eagle,  learning through experimentation and from each other.


A juvenile bald eagle attempts catching prey in Greenwich NJ


First, they learned to fly and equally important how to land.  It’s not as easy as you might think for an eagle.  Like any bird, they must balance their momentum with an opposing flap of the wing while also gripping the branch. But with Eagles, the grip is like a vise that cannot be easily released.  Too much momentum, too little flap, too tight a grip and the bird finds herself hanging upside down, unsure of what to do next

Gradually they would learn to hunt, easily picking from the abundance of late summer fish. The education of young eagles is complete when learning to soar. It’s a glorious sight to see for yourself.    A clearly juvenile bird, picking useless fights with it nest mates, toying with inedible prey like turtle shells,  landing as ineptly as a junior airplane pilot – more or less goofing around in the late summer heat.  Then one day she spreads her enormous 8 feet of wing, keeping them flat as a board and finds a rising column of air, unseen but easily felt by an eagle.

These common but invisible circular uprisings of warm air, grow from the uneven heating of two land types, a bare field or marsh and a forest for example. The invisible column of warm air winds upward like a tornado in slow motion.  One can see birds in thermals most days in the late summer, usually big groups of gulls or vultures slowly circling upward into the heavens.

But the eagle is the master of thermals.  She joins the slowly moving air like jumping on a moving vehicle and slowly lifts, flying in an every widening circle, higher and higher until she’s only a speck in the sky.  The world at her command.  Eagle vision is 8 times our own, so at a few thousand feet, the world unfolds for miles in all directions.  Eventually, they would leave the hack site, most never to be recognized again.


Restoration Against the Odds

In the 8 years of the project, we successfully hacked 66 eagles.   After five years, new nesting pairs appeared, at first around the bay, eventually across the entire state. And this is what struck me and sparked this blog.  Our goal then was a modest 8-10 pair and now we have  172 eagle pairs in NJ, 132 successfully fledging 216 eagles.  That’s 216 new Eagles in one year!


eagles NJ

The number of bald eagles in NJ has soared from just one pair to 150 nesting pairs fledging 216 young


Remember this project started in the 1980’s, a period in our country’s political history when wildlife were mortally threatened by selfishness and greed. Now they are again this time by a greedy and selfish Donald Trump and his shadowy assault on wildlife (did you know that the US Fish and Wildlife Service will have a quarter of its budget cut in the next fiscal year?). So it’s worth looking back and guessing why was the eagle was successfully restored and more important, what does it teach us today.


Agencies Played a Key Role

Certainly, environmental conditions had improved for eagles, DDT eventually dissipated after years of a total ban in 1972. The waterways of NJ, like those in the rest of the country, shed the last vestiges of this awful chemical and all the species affected grew in numbers. But one must remember there were two concurrent threats, one well known – DDT, the other an equally insidious loss of wild land that goes on to this day.  See the image below from Dr. Richard Lathrop who heads Rutger’s remote sensing lab, showing the loss of wildlife habitat from 1986 to now.  NJ loses wildland at an alarming pace, almost certainly leading to an end that will make this state live up to its nasty reputation.   But the burst of new Eagles occurred despite this.


NJ habitat loss

NJ losses its wildlife habitat at an alarming rate. This GIF by Rutgers Center for Remote Sensing (CRRSA) shows the loss in red. Eagle population grew in this period of great loss.


So in addition to the ban of DDT  agencies defended eagle habitat through regulation and protection. From the very beginning, when newly matured Eagles set up territories, the agencies, Division of Land Use Regulation foremost amount them, surrounded nests with a buffer of protection from development.  So did the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, who kept people from disturbing the human sensitive species.   This was important.

When judging impact to wildlife one must always think like the animal.  Eagles need time to escape or react with aggression because they are big.  So unlike a small bird who allows the hand of man to virtually touch the nest before reacting, an eagle reacts when danger is far away. At first, they react with curiosity that quickly changes over to alarm as the threat gets closer.  A disturbance is nearly always important, simply because it consumes time and energy and if it’s repetitive, the eggs or young might suffer. So protecting Eagles from both habitat loss and disturbance were key in the recovery.

We make this job even more difficult when we allow powerful interests frame regulators and biologists as difficult problems to overcome.  For all the time that biologists and regulators stood guard against the wasting of eagles and their habitat,  they had to face off with an increasingly self-righteous and uninformed public spurred on by self-serving politicians. These crises du jeur,  consume huge amounts of time and often pit regulators with their bosses, an ever increasing number owing their own futures to political connections.


The Public Willed the Protection

So the agencies played an important role, but most agency folks know full well that their authority simply depends on the public supporting them. After all in NJ, if you have no political power, you are sunk.  This goes for people and wildlife. If the public insists that protection will arise, one way or another.  How else can one explain this miracle of eagle conservation when all other species conservation initiatives failed or limped along without adequate support?


bald-eagle steal fish from osprey

An adult bald eagle attempts to steal a fish caught by an osprey in Dividing Creek NJ


And why not?  Who among us who have seen eagles, not felt their spirit.  They dominate the sky wherever they fly.  They tower over other large birds, from stealing fish of frustrated Ospreys to killing unwary waterfowl, even geese in the dead of winter.  I once trapped a bald eagle with a rocket net in order to remove a conibear trap, a double square of metal rods that snaps the neck of beaver-sized animals with a powerful double spring.  The eagle must have attacked a muskrat or beaver about to be killed by the trap only to be caught himself.  The trap weighed 5 pounds to the Eagles 10, yet it flew, trap and chain dangling from its leg.  The trap-broken-leg had to cut off to save the animals life, but even after this loss and months of rehab, the bird was seen years after its release.   A disabled but unbroken wild animal.

I once trapped a bald eagle with a rocket net in order to remove a conibear trap, a double square of metal rods that snaps the neck of beaver-sized animals with a powerful double spring.  The eagle must have attacked a muskrat or beaver about to be killed by the trap only to be caught himself.  The trap weighed 5 pounds to the Eagles 10, yet it flew, trap and chain dangling from its leg.  The trap-broken-leg had to cut off to save the animals life, but even after this loss and months of rehab, the bird was seen years after its release.   A disabled but unbroken wild animal.

The inspiration of Eagles encourages its protection. This unseen political force makes agencies think twice about giving up a nest or an important feeding area for a poorly planned development or the greedy politicians who get rich from them.  But this human force-of-will found a more concrete expression that could very well be the main reason why Eagles prevailed.  At the very heart of the bald eagle restoration program was the Eagle Volunteer Program.


The People Who Love Eagles Save Eagles

I helped start this program and knew many of the people who first took part.  Among them were Elmer and Bunny Clegg.  They were my parent’s age, children of the depression, a working class family from the industrial waterfront of the Delaware River. Elmer retired from Dupont.   Elmer and Bunny watched over the first new nests with the zeal of parents.

Once Elmer called while I was still Chief of the NJ Endangered Species Program demanding I come to the new nest in inner city Camden. As the eagle population grew Elmer and Bunny took on new nests, often the ones few other volunteers would consider watching.  Camden was one. Elmer saw police helicopters circling the nests, adult birds flying frantically avoiding them while below two dead people sat in an abandoned car.  Elmer saved the nest but only because we alerted the police and they did their best to give birds some leeway.  Elmer died recently and in an appreciation, I wrote this ” People like Elmer deserve to return to this earth as the species they loved so much”


bald eagle volunteers

Elmer and Bunny Clegg fool around with Erica Miller who holds a bald eagle chick. The Cleggs nurtured eagle nests as volunteers since the beginning of the restoration work in the 1980’s. Erica, a veterinarian retired from Tri-State Bird Rescue volunteers her time to examine Eagles about to be banded by the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife.


Isn’t this why most of us love wildlife?  Don’t we see in their world the one we cannot see,  but hope and pray exists?  Of all the people who believe in God, a bare majority are absolutely certain.  Many like me seek assurances in our daily life, and a relationship with wild animals helps give us access to that which we cannot touch and gives us faith in the Divine?.  As Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical on climate change Laudato Si, On Care of Our Common Home,  “We read in the Gospel that Jesus says of the birds of the air that ‘not one of them is forgotten before God’ ( Lk  12:6). How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?”


We read in the Gospel that Jesus says of the birds of the air that ‘not one of them is forgotten before God’ ( Lk  12:6). How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?”  From Pope Francis encyclical on climate change Laudato Si, On Care of Our Common Home


He speaks of all wildlife, but among those who speak loudest to people are eagles.  They draw in our support. At the heart of the Eagle restoration are people who care.



How Does Eagle Conservation Inform Shorebird Conservation

When one shines a similar light on our efforts to protect the shorebird stopover on Delaware Bay how does it compare? To be sure we have a well-developed group of volunteer scientists and a passionate public who enthusiastically take part in one of the longest standing and most productive wildlife projects in the country.  Much the same way regulators protected eagle habitat, they guard the Bayshore marsh and upland edge with determination and good intentions. If anything one might suggest more flexibility to help key Bayshore towns, like Reeds Beach, Fortescue and Gandys Beach develop more resilient infrastructure.  To some extent, the system faltered in the face of an intertidal land grab by industrial level oyster aquaculture, but even there small aquaculturists and conservationists might still prevail to the benefit of both the economic and ecological resources.


Our banding team on a catch at South Reeds.


But unlike the eagle, shorebirds requires a key food resource of immense value -horseshoe crabs and it didn’t take long before people realized this and started cashing in.  In the 1990’s and continuing until today, the agencies allowed the horseshoe crab to be chewed up in the maw of the industrial fishery that dominates the mid-Atlantic. Why allow the destruction of a keystone species that anchors one of the great migration stopovers in the world?

As bait for the relatively puny fisheries for couch and eel.   It took years for the agencies to sort it out and now ironically both species suffer fates similar to the crab. The couch declines in size every year, an important sign the fishery is about to collapse.  Similarly, eels grow fewer each year, a tragic decimation of one of the most interesting migrations of all animals. The American Eel breeds in an equatorial backwater in the center of the Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea. They breed there and the young migrate to estuaries like Delaware Bay. The eels overharvest was so great it was proposed for federal listing in 2014 but this was defeated.   Unfortunately, life as bait was not the crabs biggest threat.


A more important threat comes from the use of horseshoe crab blood as a source for the valuable biochemical Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL).  This complex biochemical detects bacterial endotoxin in everything medical that goes into a human body and medical companies rake in hundreds of millions every year to extract it, refine it and sell it.  They spend nothing on the conservation of the horseshoe crab.  They have contributed to the local extinction of horseshoe crabs throughout the world. Now they focus on the horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay.  Currently, there are five bleeding labs using crabs from Delaware Bay.  Most reside in MD, whose compliant regulators require virtual nothing from the companies not even valuable information on the numbers, the value of the blood and LAL or the mortality they cause.

Peer reviewed scientific replications of their method suggest a kill in the hundreds of thousands that is largely focused on Females.   Female horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay have not increased in the 19-year history of regulating the bait industry.

Three industries make money from horseshoe crabs or their habitat.  The bleeding of crab for Lysate earns medical companies millions and they pay nothing for the conservation of the crab.  The industrial level fishery for couch and eels already destroyed a major portion of Delaware Bay Crabs and they too have done nothing to restore them.  Finally, the industry backing the aquaculture of oysters attempted to expand their reach into every horseshoe crab breeding area on the bay but were only thwarted by the federal listing of the red knot.  Although agencies require concessions from each group they don’t estimate the accumulated impact on the crab population or the shorebird stopover.  All make money free of any responsibility to replace their ecological losses.

Existential Threats with a Simple Solution

So this is the existential threat to shorebirds that Eagles didn’t have to face.  A systematic depletion of their main food source.   Industries consume horseshoe crabs and habitat without regard to their collective impact and in response agencies risk only stop gap solutions that give away crabs at conservation-free costs. Why? Because they are not being compelled to do otherwise.

The eagle restoration teaches there is only one surefire way to fix this.  First, the people whose lives have been touched by shorebirds must act to help others be touched in the same way.  This could be as remote as watching a relevant youtube video or reading something substantive, like Deborah Cramer’s book “The Narrow Edge”.

But better for the birds is helping them in some meaningful way.  This could be as a volunteer working on the shorebird banding team, or those with ReTurn a Favor rescued crab project or even those who help volunteers, like Citizen United’s shorebird chef program ( my favorite!).   These people understand and admire bird and crab, much in the same way Elmer and Bunny Clegg did with bald eagles

These practiced and knowledgeable volunteers will naturally touch many other people in their lives and ultimately they will reach the regulators and politician.  It’s already in motion, we see the impact of in the consideration given to the shorebirds in agency actions now.  But we are only at the beginning, more people are needed.



Those who feel compelled to help should do so without reservation, despite all the conflicting scientific opinions and contradictory news releases.  Resource biologists, like most people,  are not immune to the promotional advantages of “being the devils advocate” or using uncertainty to favor the interests important to the more powerful.   These contrary explanations delay the hard choices necessary to rein in the excesses of industry and they always sell better to a largely disinterested public, get grants easier and create smoother paths to promotion or tenure.

But for those who care to help, this too is a distraction.   Actions done to help birds and crabs when done with care will cause no harm and it requires no prior political ideology.  We only need the desire to do good for wildlife and in so doing, lift the prospects for a part of God’s creation.   Certainly, that’s a worthwhile enterprise in itself.



A girl turns over crabs on Villas beach. Most can find an opportunity to help crabs with the reTURN A Favor cooperative in NJ which helps connect people with convenient horseshoe crabs rescue walks.