These days, seeing a bald eagle at Naval Support Facility (NSF) Dahlgren or NSF Indian Head is a routine, if still-majestic experience. However it wasn’t always so – our national symbol was only removed from the endangered species list in 1995 and from the threatened list in 2007 after decades of work by conservationists and environmental professionals, including those serving the Navy. The installations are both located in prime eagle habitat along the Potomac River, with stretches of secluded, wooded shoreline that contrast with development along the river elsewhere in the region.
This year, an annual aerial survey conducted by the College of William and Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology found 11 nest at NSF Dahlgren, producing an estimated 21 eaglets. At NSF Indian Head, the study found 14 active nests and an estimated 25 eaglets. The numbers are consistent with survey results from recent years that show a healthy, fully-recovered population.
“When I first came to Indian Head in 1990, there was one nest,” said Jeff Bossart, environmental program director. “They were a rare sight years ago but have adapted well… now they’re everywhere.”
While much of that progress came from nationwide efforts such as banning the eggshell-damaging pesticide DDT, local efforts at NSF Dahlgren and NSF Indian Head continue to give the eagles a boost.
“Although delisted from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2007, bald eagles are still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA),” said Seth Berry, natural resources specialist at NSF Indian Head. “As a result, [NSF Indian Head] manages bald eagles to avoid/minimize impacts related to overhead utility lines.”
Additionally, members of the environmental program manage base activities within 660 feet of any bald eagle nest on the base, in compliance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s BGEPA Five-Year Programmatic Permit and the installations’ own bald eagle management plans.
Even though the recovery of bald eagles is one of the most successful stories in American conservation, Navy environmental professionals keep close watch for new threats. Habitat destruction and degradation, pesticides and lead ingestion, utility lines and wind energy development all serve as warnings against complacency.
For one Navy environmental professional, staving off new threats and preserving the successful legacy of the recovery is personal. Travis Wray, natural resources specialist at NSF Dahlgren, is following in the footsteps of his father, Thomas, who served in the same role at Dahlgren before his retirement in 2018.
The senior Wray kept detailed records of the bald eagle recovery dating back to his early years on the base in the late 1980s. Just prior to his arrival, there was only one nest at Dahlgren, at the Pumpkin Neck Annex, and it didn’t successfully produce eaglets until 1985. By 1990, eagles established two more nests on the main side part of the base. Numbers fluctuated over the next decade, but really started to take off around 2000. By 2010, NSF Dahlgren hosted seven eagle nests.
The junior Wray experienced some of that progress growing up on and around the base. “[My Dad mentioned] that when he got to Dahlgren if you would see an eagle you would stop to marvel at it with your binos since it was such a rare sight,” he said. Recreation activities on the base and assisting his father with conservation projects like bluebird restoration – along with an appreciation of horticulture from his mother – helped inspired Wray to enter the field.
Like the rest of the Natural Resource Office team, he is keen to see that successful legacy and its majestic subjects protected into the future. “I’d say there is a fair amount of pressure to continue the good work he has done the last 30 years to balance supporting the military mission with the conservation of the natural resources and our various ecosystems.”