Developer vows to take steps to protect eagles

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The bald eagle nest along the Flathead River in Hungry Horse. Neighbors say they've watched the eagles in the area for decades.

The developer of a gated community at the base of Teakettle Mountain said he’s taking steps to address concerns over a bald eagle nest on his property.

Residents in Hungry Horse became alarmed in August after developer Mark Panissidi, who owns the 400-acre Flathead River Ranch, put a road in behind an eagle nest. The eagles have nested in the area for more than 50 years, neighbors said.

“We’ve watched these eagles our whole lives here,” said resident Diane Mundel, whose home overlooks the Flathead River in Hungry Horse at the end of Alpha Lane.

Her concern was that the road was too close to the nest and human traffic would disturb the birds.

But in an interview Monday, Panissidi said the road would be seeded and is designed to simply be a walking path. The property is an island of sorts — at high water a channel to the west fills with water and access to the site is via a bridge. He said he was going to divide the property into three parcels, but now his plan is to sell one, 60-acre parcel that will have one home. There are no plans for a major subdivision or commune, contrary to some rumors, he said.

“It won’t be a commune, it will be a family that owns a house,” he said.

Panissidi said he’s also working on an eagle management plan for the property, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Neighbors contacted the Service office with concerns after the road went in, FWS biologist Kevin Kritz said. Kritz said that while the Service would have preferred the road was farther away from the nest, it didn’t qualify as a “take” because the eagles successfully raised two young last summer. Panissidi didn’t put the road in until late August, after the young eagles had fledged.

Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, take “means pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, destroy, molest, or disturb,” an eagle.

Disturb means “to agitate or bother a bald or golden eagle to a degree that causes, or is likely to cause, based on the best scientific information available, (1) injury to an eagle, (2) a decrease in its productivity, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior, or (3) nest abandonment, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior.”

Panissidi said next year, in cooperation with the FWS, they would put up signage near the nest to create an area closure during the critical nesting period. One problem right now is rafters stop on the massive sandbar where the cottonwood trees grow. They picnic and walk right under the nest to take pictures, Panissidi said.

His property line, he notes, extends to the low water mark. The San Diego, California, native said he’s pro-wildlife conservation.

“I moved here to be in wildlife,” he said. Panissidi lives at the ranch and has been in the valley about five years. He’s completed or is working on several developments in the Whitefish area.

Resident and retired biologist Anne Wheeler, who has also raised concerns about the development near the nest, said she’d like to see a broader effort to protect eagles throughout the river system.

Now is an opportune time as the Forest Service and National Park Service are working on a Comprehensive River Management Plan for all three forks of the Flathead River.

She’d like to see buffer zones around eagle nests written into the plan system-wide. Glacier National Park puts large buffer zones around its eagle nests. Eagles routinely nest along its lakes and streams.

Kritz said the idea of buffer zones is a good idea. He noted that nationwide, bald eagles are doing well, with populations showing an increase.

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