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The Patterson Report

8/16/2007

Thank you, Sam Barkley

Thank you Sam Barkley. The American bald eagle is fully recovered.

The eagle has finally landed after a 30-plus-year flight within the Endangered Species Act. Our national symbol was officially delisted on June 28 as a threatened species.

Congratulations to Sam Barkley and all the others like him who made this day possible.

Sam Barkley was the non-game biologist for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission some 20-plus years ago. I remember a firecracker hot three days we spent one July in the Ozarks high above the Buffalo National River. Sam suited up in his climbing gear to ascend 60-feet of a tall shortleaf pine tree to what looked like a huge tree house — what biologists call a hacking station — where a pair of months-old bald eagle chicks waited for their meal.

With ropes and pulleys Sam Barkley hauled a 5-gallon bucket of fermenting fish to feed the young eagles. This was all done without the eagles ever knowing Sam was there. The conventional biological wisdom required that for eagles to properly habituate to the wild, they couldn't see their human caretakers.

After a short rest, Barkley descended from his high perch, drenched in sweat and stinking fish slime. The next day would be the big day when he opened the hacking cage so the eagles could take flight for the first time.

Sam Barkley made several trips up and down that big pine tree over the next couple of days. Most of the time he sat in the stifling heat high in the tree waiting for the eagles to fly.

They finally flew late in the afternoon of the third day. The first one hopped awkwardly from the platform and crashed through some oak tree limbs before landing safely. The bird was shook up, visibly panting in the oppressive heat.

But the second eagle took off with a powerful pump of its wings, clearing the tree branches and making the open air high above the emerald green river below. It soared catching a warm thermal. It was an awe-inspiring moment. One easily caught in the joyful expression displayed on the red, sweating face of Sam Barkley.

I'm sure Rachael Carson would have had the same expression of awe and joy if she had lived long enough to see that scene. The mother of the modern environmental movement wrote Silent Spring, the book that revealed the devastating effects of the pesticide DDT on bird populations, particularly the bald eagle.

DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972.

In 1963, the year after Silent Spring was published, biologists counted only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. The bald eagle was one of the first species listed as endangered in 1967.

Today, almost 10,000 nesting pairs exist. The top three states in the lower 48 for nesting pairs of bald eagles are Minnesota, Florida and Wisconsin.

While trout fishing on the Little Red River in Arkansas earlier this year, my youngest son, George, and I saw three bald eagles, including one of those 10,000 pairs that was working on building a nest.

It was an awesome sight. And as I looked at the excited face of my 8-year-old, I saw the same expression I'd seen on Sam Barkley's face 20-plus years ago.

So on June 28, a bunch of federal bureaucrats gathered near the Jefferson Memorial on a blistering hot day in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the American bald eagle's recovery. They slapped each other on the back and made speeches.

And a trained domesticated bald eagle named "Challenger" flew overhead, taking a healthy dump on the table where the Secretary of the Interior would soon sign papers taking his wild brethren off the threatened and endangered species list.

But none of it could ever have happened without the hard work of hundreds of unrecognized "Sam Barkleys" out there who accomplished the hard work on the ground to bring the American bald eagle back.

I remember Sam Barkley's hard work.

Happy birthday America. And thank you Sam Barkley. I'm sure Rachael Carson would have said the same thing.