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Nature's 'Greatest Comebacks': Eagles, grizzlies lead the way

By Joel Connelly
SeattlePI.com

The list includes the gray wolf and the gray whale. One is a controversial predator that is repopulating the Cascades and the Selkirk Mountains of northeast Washington. Last year... a grizzly was photographed on a ridge in the North Cascades National Park.

The American bald eagle and the grizzly bear, respectively plentiful and rare in Washington, lead a list of "Nature's Top 10 Greatest Comebacks of the 20th Century" released Tuesday by The Nature Conservancy.

The list includes the gray wolf and the gray whale. One is a controversial predator that is repopulating the Cascades and the Selkirk Mountains of northeast Washington. The other is a marine mammal that migrates from winter breeding grounds in Baja California to summer feeding grounds in Alaska.

"Nature is resilient," said M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy. "With a little help, animals, landscapes and even the air we breathe can come back from the brink of disaster."

The "greatest comebacks" list includes fouled locales that helped launch America's environmental movement.

The Cuyahoga River, in industrial northern Ohio, actually caught fire in 1970 and was dubbed by Time magazine "the river that oozes rather than flows."

Aquatic life has come back to the Cuyahoga, and to Lake Erie, since passage of the Clean Water Act.

"Clean Air" ranks on The Nature Conservancy's Top 10 list. Smoggy California has enacted the nation's strictest automobile pollution pollution stand, and even Texas' EPA-bashing Gov. Rick Perry boasts how much cleaner air is in the Lone Star State.

The "greatest comebacks" can be witnessed in Western Washington.

A pair of bald eagles, America's national symbol, make their home in Seattle's Discovery Park. Gray whales breach and spout in Saratoga Passage off Whidbey Island in April and May, midway through their long migration from Bahia San Ignacio in Baja to Alaska's Bristol Bay.

We've also helped in these parts.

As the bald eagle began its recovery, after the 1972 ban on the pesticide DDT, The Nature Conservancy in 1976 helped establish the Skagit Eagle Sanctuary. A great salmon spawning river, the "Magic Skagit" is home to one of the two largest winter bald eagle populations in the lower 48 states.

The gray wolf was virtually exterminated in the lower 48, even shot in Yellowstone National Park by hired gunmen. But the predator was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in early 1995.

Washington now has five wolf packs, though allegedly human beings have illegally poached three animals in the Methow Valley of the North Cascades. The state Department of Wildlife is witnessing hot debate over such issues as wolf recovery on the Olympic Peninsula.

The grizzly bear disappeared from the Cascades in the 1950s, with only a few grizzlies left in the northeast corner of Washington. Last year, however, a grizzly was photographed on a ridge in the North Cascades National Park.

The bears have recovered in the Rockies to the point where politicians in Wyoming want to again legalize hunting.

Other species and places on The Nature Conservancy's list include:

  • Eastern forests of the United States: Wide swaths of the eastern U.S., notably in New England, are more forested today than in the 1800s. In places like Maine, conservation easements have helped protest forests in private ownership.
  • Santa Cruz Island Fox:  The tiny, four-pound Santa Cruz Island fox was virtually wiped out by introduction of an alien species. Pigs were brought to the island. The pigs attracted golden eagles, which also feasted on foxes. Captive breeding, and the killing of pigs, has raised the fox population from 100 animals up to 1,300.
  • Mauritius Kestrel:  The small bird of prey, which lives on an island off the African Coast, was down to a population of four birds in the early 1970s. Two conservationists established a wildlife sanctuary and set up a captive breeding program. Today, there are more than 800 mature birds.
  • Southern White Rhino:  The Southern White Rhino was nearly wiped out in the 1800's, much like the American bison.  But sanctuaries and a ban on hunting have brought numbers above 20,000. Elsewhere in Africa, however, rhinos are in peril.

The Nature Conservancy hopes to add additional Northwest species -- notably salmon -- to future "greatest comeback" lists.

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