Interior Secretary James G. Watt traveled out to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center yesterday to say goodbye to an 8-week-old bald eaglet about to be released into the wild.
The eagle was one of three born in captivity that were transported yesterday from Patuxent to Nashville.
Considering that it had been removed from its parents only 45 minutes earlier, that it had come from and would return to a small, dark dog kennel, and that it faced 11 camera lenses and a crowd of jockeying reporters, the baby bald eagle was cool. It didn't flap or hoot, just stared over its long hooked beak, ignoring photographers' yells to "hold the eagle higher, higher!"
Watt said he traveled the 30 miles from Washington because "after the tremendous butchery that we've seen in South Dakota, I thought this was a great experience, to come see life. I'd rather have this in my mind than what I saw last week."
Watt last week appeared in front of 23 captured bald eagle carcasses in Sioux Falls, S.D., to announce that federal undercover agents had broken up a ring of alleged traffickers in eagle feathers. Yesterday he called that experience "repugnant," "repulsive" and "gruesome."
The otherwise routine departure of the baby eagles was unusual not only because of Watt's presence but also because the birds' breeding, release and tracking are being financed by private industry.
Du Pont donated $50,000 to double the eagle propagation program in January. American Airlines provided transportation for the three eaglets to Nashville from National Airport. And a division of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, the Eagle Rare Bourbon Co., put up $4,500 to purchase solar-powered tracking devices and to pay the costs of their gradual acclimatization to the wilds of north-central Tennessee.
Ten eagles have been returned to the wild this year from Patuxent, the largest eagle breeding center in the world, according to Dr. Jim Carpenter, a research veterinarian at the center. In all, Patuxent has now released 52 eagles in nine states since 1977. According to the center's best information, all remain alive except one that was discovered shot in South Dakota three years ago.
About 4,500 eagles live in the contiguous 48 states. They are endangered in 43, but their numbers are slowly increasing. According to Carpenter, the greatest danger is not poachers but destruction of natural habitat through development.
After a tour of the 4,700-acre facility, Watt addressed 200 employes, speaking without text or notes (but with charts) for about 30 minutes, and answering questions for another 40, about the "stewardship philosophy" he has tried to bring to management of federal lands under his jurisdiction. "In every instance," Watt said, "the land is in better condition than it was two or three years ago."
The three eaglets, which are now black and will not develop their characteristic white heads for another five years, arrived safely in Nashville at 12:49 p.m. Washington time. About 25 Tennessee wildlife officials and media representatives greeted them.
The eagle flight carried another prominent American, FBI Director William H. Webster. "There were more people meeting the bald eagle than meeting Mr. Webster," said one official.