- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

WABASHA, Minn. (AP) - What began 25 years ago as a simple idea - to help people see bald eagles during late fall, winter and early spring - has grown into the National Eagle Center, a major tourism draw for Wabasha and a center for educating people about eagle habitat.

First there was Eagle Watch, which started with volunteers standing along the Mississippi River - often in nasty cold - with binoculars, spotting scopes and information. In 2007, the National Eagle Center opened with 15,000 square feet of space to show off captive bald and golden eagles, exhibits and classrooms, all with the goal of educating the public about eagles. Today, you don’t have to stand outside to watch eagles, the Post-Bulletin (http://bit.ly/1BDxlSO ) reported.

Growth will continue into the next five or 10 years, said executive director Rolf Thompson, but the mission won’t change. It’s still there to help people see and better understand eagles, and, the center hopes, spur people to do more to protect eagle habitat.

Several decades ago, eagle numbers, as well as those of other raptors, were dropping because the chemical DDT got into their eggs, thinning the eggs and resulting in fewer hatchlings. Habitat loss and intrusion by human activities also had an effect. Once DDT was banned, eagle numbers rebounded and the birds are now numerous.

The great thing about eagles is that they are such great symbols, easy for people to admire and understand, Thompson said. People have been honoring eagles for many centuries. Roman legions had eagles on all of their standards, for example, and eagles can be found on the flags of all U.S. military branches, he said. They are also very important to Native Americans.

Other raptors might be as large or faster, but they “don’t mean the same thing to Americans as eagles do,” Thompson said. “It is a very charismatic subject, everybody has an eagle story.”

In addition, eagles can also push people to help their environment because they are also an indicator of how things are going in the Mississippi River.

The National Eagle Center sees about 75,000 visitors annually, making it a major draw for the local economy, Thompson said.

But the center isn’t big enough, and plans are in the works for a larger facility.

The center has used nearly all of its available space in the existing building, even painting a birds of prey exhibit on the rotunda ceiling and mounting birds to hang from it, he said. The next facility will be in collaboration with the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, he said. The center and refuge will have a display of windows overlooking the river and the refuge across the river, he said.

A recently completed real estate assessment found the center will need about 12,000 more square feet in the future, but there are no set plans or cost estimates, he said.

The highest priority is more space for eagles. The center wants to rent a building across the street for more space to care for more eagles. It has four bald eagles and one golden eagle now but no room for more. There is demand for more birds, and one is getting very close to retirement age.

“Space - eagles need space,” said Bridget Befort, director of eagle care.

The center only has eagles with some kind of injury that won’t allow them to be released back into the wild, she said. But to get them so they can stay calm when a lot of people are around takes many months of work, she said. They also need places where there are no people, so they can rest and rejuvenate, she said.

There is also need for exhibit and classroom space. The one classroom the center has now is often packed with people, Thompson said. He would like space for a 100-seat auditorium with better sight lines.

“There’s so much more we can be doing,” Thompson said.

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Information from: Post-Bulletin, http://www.postbulletin.com

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