City Takes Action to Ward Off Eagle Attacks

Wednesday, January 30 2013

Casey Buie (L) and Mikel Saunders (R) building the eagle-thwarting cone of wire

Eagle attacks are a relatively common occurrence in Unalaska in springtime, but this year, residents will have less to fear.

Last week, a city contractor dismantled two bald eagle nests, including one that was the source of multiple attacks in recent years.

KUCB's Stephanie Joyce reports.

Iliuliuk Clinic director Eileen Conlin Scott says injuries from eagle incidents are both medical and psychological.

“Over the years they've attacked several people where they've had to get stitches and things like that. Nothing serious where they have to be medevaced, but still it’s very frightening for somebody to be attacked from the back and not know what hit them.”

One of the nests that has sent the most people to the clinic over the the years is, ironically, on a cliff right in front of the building. It was the first of two nests that were removed last week. Scott watched the process out her window.

“The last day they were there -- there was an eagle sitting five feet from them! Oh my god! I would have had armor-knight gear on me and everything. They just had a hard hat!"

The intrepid eagle vanquisher’s name is Mikel Saunders. He’s not an eagle nest removal specialist, or even a wildlife expert. Normally he does blasting work for the company that’s clearing the site for Unalaska’s new wastewater treatment plant, but for the past week, he’s been applying those skills to demolishing eagle nests - starting with the clinic one.

“All of the nesting debris -- all of that went down over the edge of the cliff," Saunders says. "And then we actually pried the rock outcropping right off. So it’s no longer a ledge, it’s a lot steeper. And then we brought wire in and actually meshed the area where the outcropping used to be so that nothing could land.”

The whole process took just a few days, in contrast to the many months of permitting leading up to it. Chris Hoffman is a consultant who helped the city obtain the permits from the Fish and Wildlife Service. The clinic one was free because the nest was deemed a hazard to public safety, but the other nest, which is in the way of a proposed pedestrian path, cost the city $15,000. But according to Hoffman, it’s fortunate there’s even a legal way to get rid of the nests.

“Because up until a few years [ago] it just wasn’t possible to remove them, really under any circumstances," he says.

The government might have started giving permits to remove nests, but those don’t come with instructions on how to actually do it. Which is why, back out in the field, at the second nesting site, Saunders is holding an armful of chicken wire.

“Right now we’re building a cone, basically a cone of wire, to keep the eagles from landing on this outcropping right here.”

The outcropping is a just little sliver of rock, poking out over Airport Beach Road. Its former inhabitant is sitting just a few feet away.

“Saunders: He’s kind of keeping an eye on us.
SJ: And you said he’s been hanging out all day?
Saunders: Oh yeah, he’s pretty interested.
SJ: Has he been giving you any trouble?
Saunders: No, no, not at all, but definitely curious.”

The plan, Saunders explains, is to position the wire cone over the outcropping, and then drive anchors down into the bedrock so that it doesn’t blow away.

“SJ: Who came up with the design for this? Who decided to do it this way?
“Saunders: This has definitely been like a design-build project --  there were no real specs or anything. We did get some advice from the consultant that was working for the city. There wasn’t really a defined scope of work, but we’ll know here in about a month whether it works or not.”

It’s a considerable gamble. The city paid Advanced Blasting - the company Saunders works for - nearly $15,000 for the nine days of work he and another technician put in on the two nest sites. With the cost of the permit and the consultant added in, the two nests cost Unalaska around $35,000. 

“It’s added up," Public Works Director Nancy Peterson says. "We thought with each step that it was going to be a lot simpler. But it isn’t, and you know, stuff never happens cheaply, unfortunately.”

Peterson says that’s part of the reason the city has no plans to touch two other eagle attack hot spots -- the post office and Captain’s Bay Road. So while the clinic might not see any more attacks on its own turf, it will probably still see an eagle patient or two.

Kenneth Smith on Saturday, February 02 2013:

I read with interest your latest problem with eagles at Unalaska. My name is K.D. Smith, I'm a born and raised Alaskan. Cordova/Anchorage. Your bird problems certainly are not foreign to me. You see, my professional career involvement was primarily aviation, I was a commercial pilot for 15 years, airline executive, but most importantly here, I was airport manger at Anchorage International and later headed up a program for training airport managers across the state, one primary area of interest and expertise was wildlife hazard control upon airports, particularly birds.

I could go into lengthy detail as to the magnitude of the problem not only in your situation but at many airports in Alaska (Alaskan airports have paid thousands in damages over the years and we all know what happened to the Air Force at Elemendorf with geese in 1995). Suffice to say, I was involved before with your eagle and gull predicament and realize the great potential for a catastrophic accident caused by eagles or gulls at Dutch involves turbojet aircraft.

I retired 18 years ago this June. But I did keep copies of the more pertinent eye opening data and records, copies of which I will gladly mail to you if a representative of local government is concerned.

Cindy Anderson on Friday, February 01 2013:

I had a little bit of difficulty with reading this article. I suppose because Bald Eagles are still not as common in the lower 48 as they are in Alaska - but I would like to know how many people were really attacked - I am always sad to see an eagles nest have to be removed. I'd wear a hard hat fishing too in eagle areas I know they go after fishermen, but otherwise they are just protecting their nests - seems like there ought to be a better way to handle than removal, but then again maybe the "attack" problem is more serious than it appears here.

Charlene on Thursday, January 31 2013:

OK yeah I think I know where you are talking about.
Thanks Stephanie

Stephanie Joyce on Thursday, January 31 2013:

Charlene --

The second nest was on the "s-curves" of Airport Beach Road, between the wastewater treatment plant and the Dutch Harbor post office.


TripleU on Thursday, January 31 2013:

So the Bald Eagle protection act is only lawful when people are not being harmed - lol

A bit of lighter fluid and a match - ~ $5 could have done the trick - Eagles are everywhere - they attack me when I am removing a Dolly Varden off my fishing pole - Why I wear a hardhat fishing - lol.

What about the Rat problem - and the Fox problem?

Lets get rid of all wildlife as they are a nuisance I say - lol

Charlene on Thursday, January 31 2013:

Thank you for the update on removal of the eagle nests Stephanie.
Can you tell me exactly where was the second nest which was removed?
Thank you!

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