Who knew that Viagra would impact the world’s eagles?
On remote Sakhalin Island in Russia’s far east, the future of the four-foot-tall Steller’s sea eagle (left) is in peril because another species, the Kamchatka brown bear, is doing quite well, thanks to the libido-enhancing drug.
The bears’ gallbladders were prized as aphrodisiacs and the animals were mercilessly tortured, poached and killed for the high-priced commodity. Now that there’s less demand, the bears are flourishing, and cubs are climbing up into the delicate larches where eagles lay their eggs, and enjoying them for breakfast.
It’s a dichotomy that Dr. William Bowerman ’91 MA often sees in his groundbreaking research on nearly half of the world’s nine species of sea eagles. This genera, which includes bald eagles, is believed to be one of the oldest groups of living birds, their origin soaring back 33 million years, or farther.
In this same Russian research came the unanticipated benefit of coastal oil drilling.
When Bowerman and students first traveled to Sakhalin Island, Siberia, in 2001—about 4,000 miles across the open ocean from Seattle—“It was just after the fall of the Soviet Union where it had been a restricted zone; at that time North Korean and Russian mafia were kidnapping foreigners, so I had to duck down in the van in the cities,” he recalled. “It would take an entire day to get to our study site. We would get stuck in sand dunes, forge across rivers and have to wait for the carburetor to dry out.” A few years later, when he returned with colleagues, oil companies had moved in and the wide roads they built made access much easier. He even found that the companies were helpful in trying to protect the birds and their habitat.
In studying African fish eagles, the researchers discovered that pesticides, including DDT used for malaria prevention, were not the biggest threats. Instead, it was superstition. “There are myths that eagles bring bad luck, so kids were throwing rocks at eagle’s nests to prevent them from nesting. Nests had lots of rocks sticking out of them.” They also observed fish kills along the rivers from the high biological oxygen demand from runoff from farm fields.
This spirit of adventure is just one of the factors that got Bowerman inducted this year into the storied and prestigious Explorers Club as a Fellow. Founded in 1904 in New York City, he joins a relatively small number of Fellows that includes explorer-scientists who have been the first to the North and South poles, the moon, the deepest point in the ocean, and the summit of Everest. Contemporary Fellows and members include such luminaries as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sylvia Earle and James Cameron. George Shiras III and NMU alumnus and global climate scientist Frederick E. Nelson ’73 BS also happen to be Fellows. The club is “dedicated to the advancement of field research, scientific exploration, resource conservation, and the idea that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore.”
Their mission is to also sustain a spirit of fellowship among explorers and the scientific community. To that end, the club’s annual dinner is infamous. At this spring’s, 10 of 12 Apollo astronauts were in attendance to accept an award and share memories of the missions. More terrestrial was the appetizer selection, which included tarantula tempura, scorpion lollipops and other “exotics.” At the 2020 dinner, fellow Jane Goodall will be the keynote speaker and singer Paul Simon, a conservationist as well, will be a special guest.
The club is also focused on the orientation of young people toward careers in field sciences.
That last line hints at another reason for Bowerman’s invitation to this exclusive club. As well as being an eagle expert, he is also an Eagle Scout, earning his wings in 1976. He was recently recognized for his dedication to mentoring scouts, with the National Eagle Scout Association Outstanding Eagle Scout Award. And this summer he spent 16 days in a tent at the World Scout Jamboree in the wilds of West Virginia, with 50,000 scouts from 170 countries. “It was said that it was the most diverse place in the world for those two weeks,” he enthused. On the first day, he learned that his first grandson was born, destined to be a fifth-generation Eagle Scout.
Bowerman is professor of wildlife ecology and toxicology and chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. He has previously taught at Clemson University. He is a NMU Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. And he has led a consortium of scientists and experts monitoring pollution by studying indigenous eagle species in 19 countries, over four continents. He has also served as the U.S. Co-Chair of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board, protecting the lakes’ waters.
His mentoring extends beyond the scouts, as he has helped nearly 40 students acquire advanced degrees by funding their research as graduate or doctoral research assistants. He has also involved around 200 undergraduates, some NMU students, in as many research projects.
Together, they have studied white-tailed eagles in Sweden; African fish eagles in Uganda and south Africa; and bald and golden eagles in the United States; as well as other birds such as flamingos and quail. They have contributed to published studies on the effects of flame retardants, mercury, PCBs, pharmaceuticals and RoundUp® and were the first to find PFAS in non-humans They have assessed impacts of gold mining, heli-skiing, military helicopters and jets, dam building and dam removal. They have also studied avian vacuolar myelinopathy (AVM), an often-lethal neurologic disease that affects waterbirds and their avian predators in the southern U.S.
Their research sometimes has far-reaching, unexpected uses. For instance, they have served as satellite transmitter beta testers for the Army, by strapping tiny backpacks on eagles, which were later used in the Gulf War to track troops in real time. Conversely, they are exploring spinoffs of new technology for civilian purposes, such as using drones to prevent poaching or human trafficking.
"All the way through," Bowerman said "We're figureing out what's the problem in the enviorment? What's the team that we need? And how do we get students involved so we're working with the next generation of problem solvers? And finally, what's the solution"
Dr. Bill Bowerman with master's student Rachel Eberius and immature bald eagle, which she climbed to and retrieved from the nest.
Eagles serve as biological monitors. By studying birds at the top of the food chain, scientists can monitor the cumulative effects of potentially harmful chemicals as well as impacts of climate, and human activities such as commerce, construction and recreation. Because eagles generally have a foraging range within a few miles of their nest, assessments can be hyper local.
These findings have implications for other animals at the top of the food chain as well: us.
Bowerman is hopeful that new camaraderies and connections through the Explorers Club may provide more opportunities for collaboration and funding to help the world’s other critically endangered eagles.
The opportunity to carry The Explorers Club Flag is also a benefit of membership, and perchance one of the 202 flags that have traveled to the extremities of earth and outer space can be draped from the brim of an ancient, yet active eagle’s nest in the Solomon Islands or Madagascar, where coed tree climbers are cradling fluffy eaglets to be measured and weighed and carefully re-placed.
A native of Munising, Bowerman recalls that as a boy there weren’t many eagles around. “The first time I saw an eagle’s nest was 1977, when I was a teenager. I didn’t realize it was one of a few reproducing nest sites in the central U.P.”
Mike Wierda '01 BS, '08 MS also worked with Bowerman on his doctorate and post-doc research. He is now a professor at Utah State.
At that time, eagle populations had been decimated by DDT and other environmental contaminants. In his undergrad studies at Western Michigan, he wrote a proposal about studying eagles in an ecology class. His professor asked if Bill had considered grad school, because he thought someone would fund it. “I was so surprised,” Bowerman said, “I had never even considered that I could continue school. He directed me to NMU, and they said ‘yes.’” Since then, no one’s ever told me ‘no’!” His thesis research at Northern was on factors affecting bald eagle reproduction in Upper Michigan. In his doctorate program he ended up working with the top environmental scientist in the world.
“In India, they use the term ‘guide’ for professor. All along in my collegiate education, I had the right people to guide me,” Bowerman said.
“At NMU now, there’s a whole new generation of great faculty who teach many skill sets, a bigger emphasis on research, and a really wonderful science facility. The educational experience that you get at Northern is equivalent to an Ivy League.”
He values the strengths that students from smaller colleges bring as well. “They are often amazed people will fund them to go to a conference, or provide equipment, or invite them on international research. They work harder. They learn very quickly.”
“I’ve had students work on every continent except Antarctica. Who would have thought when I was in grad school that I could do this, that this is how my life turned out?”
Even while commuting to NMU from Munising, he was looking skyward. “The biggest worry we had then was the Cold War with the Soviet Union. I would see a KC-135 tanker or a B-52 or fighter jet flying over. I’m not sure if we’re much safer now. But all the environmental laws that Nixon signed in the 1970s were
very effective, so in a lot of ways, things are so much better than they were. Yet there are still many threats, with trying to roll things back.”
With about one million species at risk of extinction, according to a major global assessment report by the United Nations published this spring, how can one feel hopeful about the future of wildlife, and the earth for that matter, as a whole? Especially as the report’s co-chair Sandra Díaz stated, “There is no future for us without nature.”
“I’m always in awe of the earth and the people that we meet when we travel,” the newly minted Explorers Club Fellow says, “There’s one thing in common with everyone over the earth: They love their children and they want them to succeed. It’s amazing how much they’re like you and how much they’re different. But that is the one thing we all share.”
Fresh from the World Scout Jamboree, he adds, “After spending time with these enthusiastic students from all over the world—more than half of them girls—who are really innovative, smart and motivated, I’m not fearful for our future.”
Can you spot student researcher Rachel Eberius in an eagle's nest at the mouth of the Salmon Trout River in the Huron Mountain Club?