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Bald Eagle Preserve
Visitors to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve need only drive approximately 20 miles from Haines, on the Haines Highway between miles 9 - 31 mile, to find excellent eagle viewing areas. Designated pullouts along the highway are provided for eagle watchers and photographers.
The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was created by the State of Alaska in June 1982.
The Preserve was established to protect and perpetuate the world's largest concentration of Bald Eagles and their critical habitat. It also sustains and protects the natural salmon runs. The Preserve consists of 48,000 acres of river bottom land of the Chilkat, Kleheni, and Tsirku Rivers. The boundaries were designated to include only areas important to eagle habitation. Virtually every portion of the preserve is used by eagles at some time during the year.
The river "flats" of the Chilkat River along the Haines Highway between miles 18 and 21 are the main viewing area for eagle watchers and considered critical habitat in the preserve. Bald eagles are attracted to the area by the availability of spawned-out salmon and open waters in late fall and winter.
When the eagles come to the Chilkat River and how long they stay varies from year to year depending on food availability and weather. Usually, the height of the gathering is in November, with the number of eagles dwindling by February.
Why Is The Chilkat River So Special?
The natural phenomenon responsible for five miles of open water on the Chilkat River during freezing months is called the “alluvial fan reservoir”. This subterranean reservoir is a result of glacial activity ending 10,000 years ago which forces the water to percolate through coarse alluvial material creating friction which results in a warmer water surface temperature in an area that is, at times, five square miles. As a result, the water surface remains free of ice, thereby permitting the chum salmon to spawn late into the year. This salmon run is the last significant salmon spawning event in North America.
Five species of salmon spawn in these and other nearby streams and tributaries. The salmon runs begin in the summer and continue on through late fall or early winter. The salmon die shortly after spawning and it is their carcasses which provide large quantities of food for the eagles. This combination of open water and generous amounts of food bring large concentrations of eagles into the Chilkat Valley from early October through February, with the highest concentration being in November.
The Eagle and Tlingit Culture
The Tlingit Natives were the first known human inhabitants of the Valley of the Eagles. The great gathering of eagles has occurred at least as far back as Native man's earliest memories of the area. The people of Klukwan, the "mother village" located next to the gathering, have always lived in a close relationship to the eagle, an important part of Tlingit culture.
Recovery & Protection
Strong endangered species and environmental protection laws, as well as active private, state and federal conservation efforts, have brought back the USA's bald eagle population from the edge of extinction. There are over 50,000 bald eagles in Alaska. The bald eagle is presently protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and The Lacey Act.
America's Bald eagles are back in strong numbers today, but they are still a "protected" species in the lower 48 states. Only continued public awareness about their plight, strict enforcement of protective laws, preservation of their habitat, and support for environmental conservation programs can assure a healthy and secure future for the USA's majestic and symbolic national symbol.