Biologist Al Harmata Helps Bring the Bald Eagle Back from the Brink of Extinction

UPDATED 02/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

Lest anyone be confused, Al Harmata would like you to know that the two eagles perched in his Bozeman, Mont., backyard are not pets. They don't have cute names like Baldy or Hawkeye—in fact they have no names at all. One need only survey the patchwork of scars on Harmata's arm ("These birds have talons like a bayonet on an AK-47 rifle," he says) to see that the bald eagle and his cousin, the golden, aren't particularly sociable. Yet for the last nine years, Harmata has forged an uneasy alliance with them in order to learn all he can about their elusive and still endangered species.

No one gets closer to the national bird than Harmata, a 42-year-old raptor (bird of prey) biologist at Montana State University, who has caught and studied more live eagles than any other researcher in the country. The two birds in his backyard are the keys to his success. "The theory," explains Harmata, "is that the wild eagle sees another eagle on the ground, which reduces his apprehension about landing."

Using tethers to keep his two lure birds in place, Harmata, currently working with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, has caught, tested and released hundreds of eagles, compiling valuable information on their migration habits and the degree to which they have been contaminated by pesticides.

Despite his good intentions, Harmata has sometimes been criticized for keeping his lure birds so long. "It seems ludicrous for somebody to want me to release these birds back into the wild," he responds, "when there's less than a 50 percent chance they'll survive there." Bob Wood, a resource management specialist for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, defends the biologist. "Al's used the eagles with more success than anyone else I know, and he respects the bird's limitations," he says. "Al's highly thought of in his field. I don't know anyone who exceeds his reputation."

The bald eagle's darkest days came in the '60s. In 1963 a survey found only 417 active nests in the lower 48 states. Twenty years in which the eagle's ability to reproduce was seriously hindered by the presence of DDT in its food chain would have been devastating enough, but the species' numbers were further reduced by "sportsmen" who chartered planes to shoot the birds from the sky illegally. In a time of war and domestic strife, the declining eagle population was seen by many as an apt symbol for a troubled nation.

At the time, Harmata was having troubles of his own. A working-class kid from New Jersey, he was kicked out of a Massachusetts forestry school in 1964 for being "generally obnoxious." He was drafted and in 1966 found himself stationed in Vietnam's treacherous central highlands as an Army sergeant. Between firefights Harmata read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a breakthrough study of the devastating effects of pollutants. "I was appalled by what was going on with pesticides," recalls Harmata. "I was still just a dumb grunt, but I figured if I could do anything, I'd want to get involved with getting rid of the toxic chemicals in the environment."

Just 30 days before the end of his tour, Harmata was hit by a shell from a 75-mm recoilless rifle and ended up in a field hospital with a gaping chest wound and a mangled left arm and leg, which were later amputated. A priest was called in to perform last rites, but Harmata had different ideas. "It never crossed my mind I was going to die," he says. "All I wanted it to do was stop hurting."

Harmata spent the next seven months moving from hospital to hospital. After rehabilitation he married Martha Barnes, a secretary (they divorced 11 years later), and at her urging went back to college. In 1971, just before graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in biology, Harmata followed congressional hearings on the shooting in Texas of eagles from airplanes. "It made me mad as hell," he remembers. "Like most people, I felt it was heresy to shoot an eagle." After DDT was banned in 1972, the bald eagle began a slow, steady comeback. As Harmata went on to earn a Ph.D. from Montana State, the bald eagle population continued to grow, and there are now about 2,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. (There are about 8,000 more in Alaska, where the eagle has never been endangered.)

The dangers faced by eagles today may be less obvious than in the '60s, but, says Harmata, they are just as deadly. As housing developments, logging and mining operations spread further into the wilderness, the habitat of the eagle continues to shrink, and although DDT is no longer in use, other toxins deadly to the eagle (such as Compound 1080, a coyote poison) have taken its place. Harmata warns against complacency. "In the long run," he says, "education and awareness is the name of the game. Researchers can do all the research in the world, but if you don't have the public behind you, nothing will get done."

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