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Relocation of bald eagle may threaten tourism to area

September 9, 2018

MORGANZA, La. (AP) — Twenty years ago, a newcomer took up residence in this Pointe Coupee Parish village and quickly became one of its most popular residents.

His name was Montana, a bald eagle nursed back to health and released into the wild to flourish.

The eagle stuck around, found a mate, built a nest atop an oak tree along La. 1 within the Morganza Spillway and raised several broods of little ones.

“We’ve adopted him; he’s our mascot,” said René Thibodeaux, a lifelong resident of Morganza, ”(but) we’re worried he’s going to relocate.”

Why?

Because years of annual flooding within the spillway’s forebay is killing the tree where the eagle’s nest is located. And Thibodeaux, one of the leaders of a community group trying to revitalize economic commerce in the small town, was hoping the state’s wildlife and/or agricultural experts could do something to keep the eagle’s nest in its highly visible spot.

But officials with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the state’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry say the residents of Morganza will soon need to face facts: The eagles will be forced to fly the coop.

“There is so much habitat, in the way of tall trees, that those birds can use; there’s isn’t a lot you can really do,” said Michael Seymour, non-game ornithologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“It’s an oak tree, so it’ll be awhile before it completely rots away,” said David Campbell, director of the forestry program for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. “But once it’s dead, it’s dead. It’s out of the question to try and save it.”

The tree that serves as home for the eagle’s family can be seen off La. 1, making the nest one of the most popular for bird watchers. It’s also not uncommon to see motorists pulling over to the side of the road to catch glimpses of the eagles — one of whom could still be Montana but officials aren’t sure.

The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, along with state officials, released Montana near the spillway in 1995 once the eagle was nursed back to health after he was hit by a car near Houma.

At the time, there were only about 100 active bald eagle nests in the state. It has been illegal to kill the endangered animal for years in most of the country.

In July, the LDWF released data from a 2017-18 survey showing there were more than 260 active eagle nests just in southeast Louisiana. LDWF estimates there are more than double that number statewide.

Thibodeaux, president of the Morganza Cultural District, had never seen a bald eagle in the area until Montana showed up. The idea of no longer being able to easily take a gander at the nest worries Thibodeaux, and the rest of the cultural district, that they may lose one of the few things that attract visitors to the village of about 650 residents.

The revitalization groups sees the eagle’s nest as a vital component in their efforts to open new businesses and add commerce to its one-mile business corridor, giving people who come to see the nest places to eat and shop.

“We don’t want him to relocate in the woods where no one can see him,” Thibodeaux said. “We were hoping someone could put in an artificial tree to keep (Montana) where he’s at so everyone can see him.”

Most of the other trees in the spillway’s forebay have already rotted, lost limbs and/or tipped over, victims of years of flooding within the forebay, Campbell said.

The tree with the eagle’s nest is one of the few that remains.

The Morganza Spillway, part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flood-control system, is designed to divert water from the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya Basin during major floods.

The bowl-shaped forebay area between the spillway’s flood control gates and the Mississippi River is also fertile farmland owned by local farmers.

During seasonal flooding, the swelling waters from the Mississippi River swamp the forebay and can remain there for several months.

“That high water stays up so long I imagine that hurts the trees,” Campbell said. “But it’ll be awhile before it rots.”

Seymour, the ornithologist, said the state has installed artificial structures before to encourage eagle nesting, but doesn’t see that as a viable or affordable solution in the spillway.

“When it comes to the Morganza Spillway, it obviously gets a lot more complicated because it’s kind of a multi-use type area,” he said. “It would obviously be pretty expensive. The materials alone would be pretty expensive. Administrators may have a completely different opinion on this. My opinion, from a biologist standpoint, would be that the money would be better spent doing some other sort of mitigated thing for bald eagles.”

Seymour added that erecting any type of artificial structure doesn’t guarantee the eagles would remain at the same spot anyway.

“When all around the Morganza Spillway there are still quite a few trees, it may not be ideal, but if you’re a bald eagle and you see what could be a nest tree, they would almost certainly pick natural over artificial.”

Both Campbell and Seymour say it could likely be a few more years before the eagles nesting in the spillway will be forced to find a new home — a bitter pill residents will just have to swallow.

“We never had any idea the eagle would become such a big deal,” Thibodeaux said. “Now it seems like a necessity to our revitalization.”

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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