Why counting bald eagles wintering along the Wisconsin River matters
A group of volunteers recently did a bald eagle count along the Wisconsin River. It’s part of a 35-year tradition with the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council.
Every two weeks during the winter, the council counts eagles as they fly in to roost for the night. The count information is shared with state and federal agencies and serves as a tool to build conservation, awareness, and partnerships.
The most recent count coincided with the annual Bald Eagle Watching Days in Prairie du Sac. Thousands of enthusiasts gathered both in-person and virtually for educational programs and in hopes of spotting the magnificent birds in flight.
Jeb Barzen is the president of the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council. He says the group gathers to help build awareness, save the habitat and help bald eagles remain in the area. Barzen adds, eagle conservation is now woven into the fiber of communities in the Prairie du Sac area.
Barzen highlighted the newly constructed overlook in the heart of Prairie du Sac that offers expansive views of the Wisconsin River as it is a prime location for eagle viewing.
“We [Ferry Bluff Eagle Council] didn’t pay for any of that. We paid for the materials for the first overlook and built it, and so on. We have been using that for over 30 years. Now there’s this beautiful one,” Barzen says. “That’s kind of one of the signs of the community really investing in eagles, literally and figuratively in terms of wanting to share the habitat and make it viable.”
Sharing can sometimes be challenging. However, Barzen says the winter eagle roosting data his group has amassed helps untangle conflict. “Like the Great Sauk Trail was a wonderful resource that we just completed here in the last few years,” Barzen says.
The paved 10.5-mile trail parallels the Wisconsin River on what used to be a rail corridor. It’s popular year-round, including for snowshoeing and skiing in the winter. However, the eagle council negotiated to close the trail when eagles are present along the corridor.
“If you were going to say ‘during the eagle season,’ it would be Nov. 1 to March 30. That’s a long time. People were rightfully upset, and it’s not the whole trail. It’s a section of the trail,” Barzen explains.
So they struck a compromise, using the eagle council’s accumulated data.
“The trail is closed when the eagles are upriver because that’s when you want them to be able to be undisturbed, perching during the day on either side of the rivers … so the gates get closed when there are more than 10 birds in the two roosts that are in the upriver area,” Barzen says. “And the community is okay with that sort of compromise.”
People can still enjoy seeing eagles during those times, just from a distance.
Ferry Bluff Eagle Council shares its eagle monitoring data with federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“[Monitoring] has always been a critical component of Ferry Bluff Eagle Council because learning about the eagles that were here made us relevant, and we were able to address various issues that have since come up. And it’s really one of the smarter things we ever did because that data gets used all the time for all kinds of different questions,” Barzen says.
For example, the data was used when there was a sudden and mysterious occurrence of eagle deaths.
“People were saying we think this is a serious problem. And so we could look at the wintering population along the lower Wisconsin [River,] which is where this disease is being found, and we could show that there wasn’t really much change in the population, so we could provide the DNR with some of the information that they needed,” Barzen says.
Barzen says the eagle’s council work will not end.
“When you really think about looking into the future and think about sustainability, it’s about engagement. It’s about making sure that the changes that are always going to be occurring are compatible with the things that you value,” Barzen says. “We’re co-inhabitants.”
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