In April, Virgil Caine was spotted flying over and around the Boundary Mountains of Maine - again! Who is Virgil Caine? She is a golden eagle, maturing and deciding where to live, hunt and breed. This is her third summer here. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been tracking Ms. Caine for some years now. As a celebrity, she wears a radio transmitter.
There are 100 documented golden eagle nests north of the Boundary Mountains in southern Quebec, the Gaspe region and in Labrador. As early as 1993-94, observers witnessed two golden eagles migrating through the area and new studies show a marked increase in sightings of Virgil and others in the Boundary Mountains. Recent telemetry shows that the mountains of western Maine are a migration corridor for the Gaspe population of golden eagles as they travel to and from southern and central Appalachia.
We hope that some will choose to nest in Maine. Virgil is of breeding age and will be ready to settle down soon. Babies? Here? Imagine it!
Industrial wind energy development is also looming large in western Maine. There is a large complex already up and running within the historic range of Maine's golden eagles. A second one, Sisk Mountain, is proposed within 10 miles of three known nest sites.
The ridges in the Boundary Mountains are ideal for slope soaring on updrafts for migration and foraging. Unfortunately, the golden eagle's erratic type of flight pattern increases its risk of collision with turbine blades. As a result, the golden eagle has been identified as one of the eastern North American bird species most vulnerable to wind development.
Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request show that TransCanada submitted a permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers for a federal "take" permit at the Sisk location. This indicates that the company knows the project could possibly interfere with or kill golden eagles. They are not pursuing the "take"permit at this time but say they will institute a long-term monitoring program.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will not issue a "take" permit for golden eagles. They have zero tolerance for killing of goldens. Unfortunately, the fine for killing is chump change - a mere $5,000.
TransCanada must determine if there are potential breeding territories, communal roosts or important foraging areas within 10 miles of the project. The discovery of migration corridors in close proximity to the proposed site could have critical implications.
TransCanada claims the Sisk proposal (permitted by Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission but in appeal), "has a discrete footprint and will not present a barrier to migrating eagles." If by chance a pair makes its home in one of the historic nesting sites, "it is unlikely that they would frequent the ridges within or near the projects area for foraging." This statement is based on a video made in the 1960s of a nesting pair at Sisk Mountain. TransCanada's spring and fall surveys were conducted before and well after the peak migration periods. Gotta keep those numbers low.
Comments from the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service paint a different picture. Data suggests that western Maine's mountains are the only migration corridor for goldens from the Gaspe region.
The project itself will become eagle hunting habitat through clearing of ridgetops and road building. This will expose small mammals, birds and carrion and attract goldens to these high forests for hunting. The project is proposed near historic nest sites, in a primary golden eagle migration corridor and with birds present for most of the year. This will significantly increase the risk of a take or killing of golden eagles. Unfortunately, the Fish and Wildlife Service only gets to comment on the birds' fate. The decision is made by the Army Corps of Engineers in Massachusetts.
If we want the golden eagle back in our mountains, we need to let our state agencies know this. Here is an opportunity to help a long lost friend return home. Contact the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Army Corps.
LURC didn't have this information when it permitted the Sisk project. Now it is too late without public input. We have a say in the fate of the golden eagle in Maine.
Imagine seeing a golden eagle, weighing in at 14 pounds with a wind span of up to seven feet. Imagine it.
Nancy O'Toole of Phillips is an environmental scientist. She was an expert witness in the hearings for the Sisk Mountain wind proposal and the Bull Hill hearings.