Potter Valley eagles' nest to remain standing
January 17, 2022 — Neighbors and bird-watchers successfully faced down PG&E to defend a bald eagle’s nest in Potter Valley last week. On Wednesday night, Tim Bray, a kzyx programmer and member of the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society, sent out an alert that PG&E planned to cut down the aging Ponderosa Pine that contains the nest, located on a road that runs parallel to the Eel River, not far from Van Arsdale Dam. Bald eagles are no longer on the endangered species list, though they are federally protected.
PG&E biologists monitor the area extensively, as part of the licensing requirements for the Potter Valley Project, and their records show the nest has been used since 2011. It is common for bald eagles to build alternate nest sites, and according to PG&E, this pair last used its other nest in 2016. Locals, including Joseph West, a tenant on the property hosting the main nest, say it’s been there for decades. “Lately, I’ve been watching them for seven, eight days, bringing material into the nest,” he reported on Thursday. “I've seen the female sitting above it quite often, looking down into it. They’ve definitely decided that this is where they want to spend their nesting season. They’ve been using this tree, I’d say three out of five years, for the past 25 years”
But the tree is in decline and close to a distribution line, which PG&E argued posed an imminent fire threat. Joseph Seidell, another tenant on the property, reported the company for poaching. “We’re in full belief that this is a nesting pair, there could be eggs in the nest, they haven’t told us that there’s not,” he explained early Thursday. “So therefore I felt impelled to make a claim that these birds were going to be killed, or poached…and I was able to call CalTip and report that PG&E was going to take this nest down.”
He also hired an independent arborist who examined the tree and concluded that, while it does show signs of a beetle infestation, it shows no signs of structural deficiencies and is a good candidate for mitigations other than removal.
Earlier this month, PG&E applied for and received an emergency permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to remove the tree before breeding season started on January 15.
The property owner, who did not want her name used, complained that the timeline to make a decision was unfair and she wanted to see the permit, which she never did.
West summed up much of the general feeling, saying, “Our whole issue is, why did you wait for so long, and why now, that they’re nesting, is this such a big deal?”
The presence of the nest does constrain other tree work in the vicinity, according to PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras. While all work is not prohibited, crews would have to use hand tools or low-decibel chainsaws. “During nesting season, there are federal guidelines that we need to follow when it comes to bird activity in an area, yes,” she confirmed.
On Thursday morning, a chipper crew and a PG&E biologist arrived with a printout of the email exchange between PG&E personnel and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, explaining why she agreed to grant the permit. Kate Marienchild, author of “Secrets of the Oak Woodlands: Plants and Animals Among California’s Oaks,” was on hand with some friends.
As the chipper truck idled on the other side of the locked gate, Marienchild provided a naturalist’s description of what happened next. “I just saw an adult bald eagle land on a nest on a tall pine tree on the north side of the Eel River in Potter Valley, and perch on that nest for about five minutes, and then fly off,” she reported, within moments of watching the eagle soar off toward the river. The crew turned around and drove off in the direction they came from, as Marienchild laughed and cheered.
But it wasn’t Saturday yet. By 9:00 Friday morning, about 15 neighbors were on the scene to help the tenants block the gate. But crews never arrived. An outreach team, consisting of Contreras, an arborist, and the biologist, tried to persuade Seidell to open the gate, at one point saying that, if the tree remained standing, the company would cut the power. The tenants were unfazed. They have generators, backup generators, propane, and wood stoves. Also, Joseph West explained, “I have an attorney who says that the facts are that PG&E can be sued heavily for turning power off after leaving it this late to do anything about this tree. And we have an arborist who says it’s not an immediate threat anyway. An independent arborist. Not one of the tame PG&E ones.” His brother Paul added that he believes, “that this is just their standard threat to have their way and get their tree service in here to cut the tree and to intimidate the residents.” Seidell said he would rather not have to use a generator, but that the sacrifice was worth it.
Marienchild was not on the scene that day, though a field representative from Senator Mike McGuire’s office did make an appearance. Both Marienchild and Bray had come to terms with what appeared to be the inevitable outcome. They both pointed out that eagles are making a comeback, and agreed that this pair might have a good chance of using the other nest site this year if the pine came down.
And, though she would prefer the tree live out its natural life, Marienchild suggested that it might actually be better for the birds to get started refurbishing their alternate nest while they are still relatively strong and in good health. Bald eagles add to their nests every year, and it’s not uncommon for the nests to get so big and heavy, they break their supporting limbs and fall to the ground.
Nevertheless, by 1:00 on Friday afternoon, after several rounds of attempting to persuade the property owner, tenants, and supporters to open the gate, Contreras announced the company’s determination.
“We’re not going to cut the tree today,” she declared. She confirmed that PG&E will also not apply for another emergency permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife during nesting season, saying, “We’ve all determined that after the 15th, it just wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interests, because of nesting season.”
McGuire weighed in on Friday night, issuing a statement saying, “We appreciate all sides coming together to resolve this situation. Rightfully so, there was a lot of concern among Potter Valley neighbors and community members. I’m glad the eagles can now start the nesting season in peace.”
Seidell plans to use the reprieve to study the viability of the tree and look into what it would take to bury the line going past it. His work on this is not done, “but I’m so happy that we were able to stand as a community for this, ” he said, shortly after learning that the tree would remain, at least until the end of summer. “The birds can rest easy today in their nest…I’m pretty happy. I feel like crying.”