By John Stone

Most of us don’t remember a lot about 1782 but that was the year that the Bald Eagle was designated the national symbol.

Ben Franklin didn’t like that idea and two years later he proposed that the wild turkey become the national symbol. That didn’t fly.

When many of us grew up in the 50s and 60s, the only eagles we would likely see were in pictures. They were in a population decline caused by hunting, urbanization and chemicals that killed the birds outright or reduced their ability to reproduce. In 1963, eagle counts hit an all-time low with just 417 nesting pairs in the entire lower 48 states.

In 1978, the Bald Eagle was included in the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act. In probably one of the greatest reversals of a species’ decline, Bald Eagle populations increased to such levels the species was removed from the endangered species list in 2007.

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An article in the Star Tribune last week gave updates on Bald Eagle numbers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 316,000 Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states, nearly four times as many birds as it estimated were here in 2009.

The estimates are based on nest counts of some 71,000 nests. That nest count represents a 131% increase in nests from 2009.

Minnesota and Wisconsin are at the heart of eagle numbers' growth. The FWS figures there are 13,233 nests in the two neighboring states. Lori Naumann, who runs the Eaglecam program for the Minnesota DNR, said that Minnesota knew of only 181 nesting pairs in the state in 1980. Now Minnesota has 9,800 nesting pairs and is on par with Florida, the other large eagle count state in the lower 48. Alaska has the most eagles, estimated at 30,000.

It was in the late 1990s or early 2000s that eagles really seemed to move back into this area. What magnificent birds!

Eagles like fish and in the spring they will sit on the edge of ice by open water waiting for some innocent fish to come near the surface and serve as lunch or dinner.

The Mississippi River is a popular place for the birds. The National Eagle Center is in Wabasha and is worth a stop if you are in the area, it usually has several eagles that have been injured and cannot survive in the wild for people to see. To see one up close reveals how big they actually are.

Whether it is gliding through the air, sitting in a tree looking for prey, eating some road kill on a highway or ditch or sitting in a nest, seeing an eagle is a thrill. It is also a grand symbol of something we have done right in protecting wildlife.

For me, every eagle sighting is a day brightener. Even though they have become more plentiful, a good eagle viewing is still a memorable event. To be able to see such a magnificent bird come back from near extinction is a joy to behold, national symbol or not.

John Stone is the former mayor of Glenwood and former publisher of the Pope County Tribune and Starbuck Times. In the Know is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.