The guy who brought eagles back to the Adirondacks reflects on his career as a state bioligist.
By Paul Grondahl
PETE NYE is best known as the guy who brought the bald eagle back to New York State. The majestic raptor had stopped producing eaglets because the eggs were collapsing during incubation due to a thinning of the shells caused by the pesticide DDT. Beginning in 1976, Nye led an unprecedented experiment to capture juvenile bald eagles from other states and release them in New York, hoping they’d return here to breed. Nye wasn’t sure if it would
work, but the program was a resounding success.
In his quest to restore the eagle, Nye bushwhacked through the wilds of Alaska, climbed to the tops of hundred-foot ancient white pines in the Adirondacks, survived dive-bombs by adult birds, endured the stomachchurning stench of fish rotting under the hot sun in nests, and lovingly coddled dozens of eaglets as if they were his own children.
Besides this, he served for many years as head of the
endangered-species unit of the state Department of Environmental Conservation—a post that gave him a unique
perspective on the threats to wildlife in the Adirondacks
and elsewhere. Nye was first hired by DEC in 1974 as a
fish-and-wildlife technician. He left DEC in September at
age sixty as part of the state’s early retirement program.
We caught up with him to talk about his career, wildlife,
and other topics.
What do you think about DEC Commissioner Pete
Grannis being fi red for telling the truth about the dire consequences that deep budget cuts will have on the environment?
Pete Grannis was right on the money about so
many things, including hydrofracking [a controversial
method of extracting natural gas] and requiring companies to accept liability by posting bonds. It was just criminal what they did to Grannis. I give him credit for standing up for his principles. He stood up and said it like it was, and they fired him. That was unconscionable.
You worked under a lot of DEC commissioners.
Who were your favorites?
I know Henry Diamond was the first, but I can’t remember how many commissioners I worked under. Two of the best were the late Peter Berle and Pete Grannis. They were both very bright and understood environmental issues in a deep way. I thought Grannis was very supportive of the staff, acted in a sensible way, and always seemed to be on the right side of decisions.
What impact will the recent retirements of veteran
wildlife biologists Al Hicks, Al Breisch, and Ward
Stone have on DEC’s institutional knowledge?
Those are hugely key people we’ve lost. It’s an unbelievable
loss of institutional memory. Another one is John Keating in lands and forests, the keeper of everything known about land acquisition. Nobody knows as much as Hicks on bats or Breisch on amphibians. But nothing was ever done to try to capture that expertise before they left. It’s like life just goes on. We’ve lost four of the six endangered-species biologists, and you can’t cover everything with the two who are left.
What do you see as the major threats to fi sh and wildlife in the Adirondacks?
It boils down to human influence, no matter how you cut it, whether we’re talking about mercury, greenhouse gases creating climate change, or acid rain as a result of coal-burning plants in the Midwest.
Is the ban on lead sinkers working to protect Adirondack loons and other waterfowl?
Absolutely, it’s helping. If you want my take on it, we need a ban on all lead, period. Lead is noxious, bad stuff, whether it’s in sinkers, bullets, or children’s toys. The amount of lead that gets deposited at shooting clubs is just mind-boggling. I’ll bet we’ve had a dozen eagles in the last ten years we found dead or dying from lead, and that’s not even counting all the red-tailed hawks.
They’re scavengers, so they pick up lead by scavenging
on carcasses. There are non-toxic, non-lead shot alternatives
How are endangered raptors doing in the Adirondacks?
There are about sixteen nesting pairs of bald eagles in the greater Adirondacks, but they live and die by the weather, and some years the weather is so extreme there is no production out of the pairs. In other years, if the conditions are right, there is excellent production. It’s much more weather-dependent there compared to other parts of the state. The food supply in the Adirondacks is also an issue, and it’s harder to make a living up there as a fish-eating bird. Peregrine falcons also seem to be doing well in the Adirondacks. They’re very much a weather sensitive species, too. They’re cliff-dwellers, and the rock-climbing community has been great. They’ve taken a lead role in helping us determine where the peregrines are, and they’ve become really strong allies in helping us manage human impact. Some people are asking to delist peregrines [as an endangered species] and my response is you can delist them anytime you want, but if you don’t keep up on managing them, you’ll have falcons failing because of human disturbance.
What about the status of the Bicknell’s thrush, spruce grouse, and other endangered bird species in the Adirondacks?
Bicknell’s thrush is persisting in the higher-elevation
areas, but that’s a very diffi cult species to monitor. The
longer-term challenge for them is acid rain and climate change issues. We’ve actually been doing quite a bit with spruce grouse of late. They’re studying spruce grouse out of Watertown and constantly monitoring them. They have a unique habitat requirement of early-growth lowland
conifers. We can’t manage forests for spruce grouse under
the [constitutional mandate] protecting Forest Preserve,
and that hampers us. We’ve been able to monitor cutting
practices on some properties with private landowners,
and that has helped, but some landowners won’t let us in.
Spruce grouse have been declining consistently over the last forty years, but we don’t really have a good handle on the numbers. We talked about going to Canada and getting forty to fifty spruce grouse and releasing them into good habitats to study them. But that means money and staff time, and the state is in a budget crisis, so that’s not a high priority.
How are moose doing in the Adirondacks?
Unfortunately, Al Hicks retired, and he did a lot of good work studying moose and tracking them with radio collars. As far as I know, we’re not monitoring the moose population currently. That’s a product of staff limitations.
DEC says there are eight hundred moose in New York State, but I have no idea where they got that number. I think they took an old estimate we made of five hundred moose and came up with that eight-hundred number based on some Vermont and New Hampshire surveys.
What about the Adirondack coyote? Is it a problem
I don’t think they’re a pest or vermin. There’s a season
for hunting and trapping coyotes, and they’re the only
species you can hunt day or night with no bag limit. I don’t personally see them harming the deer population in the Adirondacks. I don’t think they’re that effective as a
What do you think about DEC’s practice of
I think stocking absolutely alters the ecosystem and leads to problems with invasive species. Look at the tonnage of Pacific salmon they’re dumping into Lake Ontario, and it changes it in ways we don’t fully understand.
The same goes with releasing pheasants. That’s a sacred cow with hunters, and they lobby for the pheasants, but I’d prefer to see that privatized if it’s going to continue. I don’t think the state should be spending $1 million or whatever it costs on raising pheasants to release for hunters to shoot.
Let’s talk about restoring bald eagles. Where does
that rank in your long DEC career?
I ran the endangered-species unit, but eagles were my baby. I started it when I was a twenty-six-year-old biologist, and I was still studying eagles when I retired at sixty. Eagles were the one thing I kept tenaciously for myself, and as a biologist that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
But there’s not much I can do for the bald eagles at this point. We’re over 220 nesting pairs [in the state] at last count. That makes me as proud as anything I’ve done in my life. I feel pretty good that eagles are going to be fine in the short term. My big concern is that in twenty, thirty, or forty
years, in the places where eagles are breeding and doing
well now, they might no longer be able to live and thrive
there because we’ll have signifi cantly altered the environment through human disturbance. When we floated this theory back in 1976, nobody in the world had ever done
this, bringing in nestling eagles and trying to release them
to re-establish a nesting population. We had no idea if they would survive. We released the first two eagles [separately] that year and found them nesting together eighty-four miles north of the release site. The odds of those two mating and staying together in New York were astronomical. We said that felt like a sign from God. It went beyond anyone’s expectations how productive they’ve been.
Do you still have a special place in your heart for
Follensby Pond and its role in the eagle-restoration
Follensby had been the last active eagle nest in the Adirondacks. As late as 1959, eagles were nesting there in a big white pine on the outfl ow of Follensby. Since we were trying to redistribute eagles where they had nested historically, we wanted to put one of our four hacking sites at Follensby Pond. In 1983, we approached the McCormicks, who owned a fifteen-thousand-acre private estate and a thousand-acre lake, and lo and behold they gave us permission to build there. It was so remote, we had to take all the supplies across the lake by boat, and we built hacking cages up in huge hemlock trees like big tree forts. The state always wanted that property, and the plan is for New York to purchase it. It’s been a working forest, and they’ve been logging it for a long time. I’m not an expert in land classifi cations, but I would love to see it without people, and I’d definitely want it to be a non-motorized lake. I’m an advocate against motorized access in wild areas. One of the coups in my career was when DEC purchased twelve thousand acres in Mongaup in Sullivan County for eagle habitat, and I fought my people tooth and nail to agree to a no-motor rule on Mongaup Pond. Only electric trolling motors are permitted, and I’m proud of that.
Tell us about the women’s pink panties and other
items you found in eagle nests.
I kept two boxes of stuff I found in eagle nests. They’re terrific scavengers. I’ve found tennis balls, balloons, lots and lots of lures and fishing tackle, and the remains of muskrats, snakes, and birds. I found the pink panties, size large, in a nest in Alaska. I inscribed them with the date, site, and nest number and hung them on the wall of my office. To my knowledge, Charles Broley, the father of eagle studies, and I are the only two people on earth who have ever found a pair of women’s pink panties in an eagle nest. He found his in a
Florida nest and wrote about it in a scientific article on
how eagles pick up bright things.
How dangerous was it climbing up to all those eagle
I was very lucky that I never got injured. I had one incident in Alaska in the mid-eighties when my rope broke coming out of a tree; I fell but didn’t get hurt. That’s as close as I’ve come. I’ve climbed thousands of trees, and I take pride that I’ve been to every eagle nest, all 220, across New York. I have the latitude and longitude from my GPS of every single eagle nest in the state in an Excel file, and I know what’s around it and its special characteristics. That’s the kind of expertise we’ve lost in the DEC. I got a lot of poison ivy when I was climbing. The tallest tree I climbed in the state was
a 130-foot white pine near Osgood Pond in the Adirondacks.
A few eagle pairs were very defensive about their nests and dove at me, but nothing like falcons. The worst thing in the Adirondacks was climbing a tree and having a cloud of black flies lifting off the nest when you reach it. I’ve had to keep my mouth and eyes closed at times because there so many black flies, and I felt my way blind to band the chicks. I never wore a head net because I was afraid it would get caught on the branches. The thing that affected me the most was the wind. It puts you on edge. I’ve had people on the ground say it was really scary to watch me as I swayed back and forth twenty-five feet. You don’t really feel the swaying that bad at the top of the tree. You just hold on and try to work like you’d normally work.
What are you doing in your retirement?
Everybody thinks I should write a book, but right now I’m busy with other things. I started volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m teaching a graduate course in wildlife management at the University at Albany. I’m still involved in land-acquisition issues and an international sea-eagle scientific group, for which we got a grant to study the effects of climate change on bald eagles. I still keep in touch with a wonderful army of volunteer eagle watchers who are very precious to me. They watch the nests, report to me, and I keep track of all their updates. I can’t let my eagles go. My wife, Sue, is still working. She’s an organic chemist. We live in Clarksville in rural Albany County and have two boys. Adam is a senior
at Lafayette College getting a degree in mechanical engineering and biochemistry. Alex is a sophomore at SUNY New Paltz majoring in graphic design. When I visit him, I do some rock climbing. I haven’t hung up my tree-climbing spikes yet. I’ll climb if people ask me. I keep fit by running with a bunch of guys from DEC. We also hike together. We recently climbed Whiteface and Esther, and it snowed the whole day up there, and there was two feet of snow on the top of Whiteface. I kept wondering how my eagles were doing.