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In the presence of the bald eagle


Frost settles mist-like over the rust colored alfalfa fields as I

drive slowly along the earthen dikes in the Klamath Wildlife Refuge.

Gold light marks the end of day and the waning sun shimmers on flocks


of Canadian geese as they root for grubs within the spent grain.

Barely visible within the tall stalks, their long necks and social

“cackle and honk” ruffle the chilling air.

Cameras, tripods and water bottles fly as I slam on the brakes and


leap from the SUV. Binoculars and camera dangling, I crouch low on

the side of the road. There, tucked among the geese, are the objects

of my journey. Two majestic black bodies topped with snow colored

heads stand tall in the cold field -- bald eagles.

The bald eagle was chosen on June 20, 1782, as the emblem of the

United States because of its long life, great strength and majestic

looks. It is the only eagle unique to North America. Its scientific

name, Haliaeetus leucocoephalus, signifies a sea (halo) eagle


(aeetos) with a white (leukos) head. At one time the word “bald”

meant “white,” not hairless.

The bald eagle is found over most of North America, from Alaska

and Canada to northern Mexico. About half of the world’s 70,000 bald

eagles live in Alaska, with another 20,000 reside in British


Klamath Basin is a mix of shallow freshwater marshes, open water,

grassy uplands and croplands that are intensely managed to provide


feeding, resting, nesting and brood rearing habitat for waterfowl.

Geographically, it sits in the midst of the Pacific Flyway, one of

three major migratory bird patterns in the United States. In mid-

November, more than one million birds stop over in the basin.

Called the “Everglades of the West” because of its great diversity

and abundance of fish and wildlife, the area is host to five national

wildlife refuges: Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, Clear Lake, Upper

Klamath, Bear Valley and Klamath Marsh.

Lower Klamath was the nation’s first waterfowl refuge, established

in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt “as a preserve and breeding

ground for native birds.” More than 80% of the western migratory

birds use the refuges’ wetlands. In the winter months, they provide

the essential habitat for the largest concentration of bald eagles in

the lower 48 states.

The basin is in the middle an environmental crisis. Only 80% of

its original wetlands remain, and the quality of water is degraded by

chemicals used in agriculture and the ravages of drought.

It is the only wildlife refuge in the U.S. that allows broad scale

commercial farming. Bureau of Reclamation land practices have

allocated and diverted water from the Klamath River to farmers in the

region where onions, alfalfa and potatoes have consistently been

rewarded at the expense of herons, geese and eagles.

After a major salmon die-off in October, 10 conservation groups

filed a lawsuit to challenge the current administration’s

mismanagement of these wildlife refuges. The groups have asked the

federal courts to order the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review

current policies of giving commercial farming interests precedence

over wildlife in low water years.

Cold stings my fingers as the light fades. My water bottle slips

to the ground and startles the eagles.

They had been keenly aware of me before, but now, uneasy, one

stretches forth his enormous dark wings and takes to the air. The

second follows, and the pair soars low across the grain. Their

strength and grace inspire reverence.

So how is it that we, having duly named these incredible creatures

our national emblem, could allow anything to threaten their health

and habitat?

The marshes of Klamath Basin and the salmon in the rivers provide

their winter home and sustenance, respectively. Without healthy

wetlands, the eagles suffer from a weakening of the species and

thinning numbers.

As they wing their way out of sight, I am saddened, but also

filled with conviction. To lend my voice to their plight seems like a

small start. To do whatever I can to protect their habitats, and

those of other wildlife, a mission.

Information on litigation can be found through The Wilderness


* CATHARINE COOPER is a local designer, photographer and writer

who thrives off beaten trails. She can be reached at or (949) 497-5081.