WABASHA, Minn. (WCCO) - For the past 25 years, visitors have flocked to Wabasha on the Mississippi River to witness an amazing comeback story.
But, the National Eagle Center isn't only teaching visitors about the remarkable eagle recovery--it's also making sure the story continues.
That's why on the day after Christmas, another gift was about to be opened by visitors to the center.
They would have the opportunity to see a bald eagle up close, to peer into its golden eyes and to marvel at the bird's sheer size.
Each year 75,000 visitors are drawn to the center, located on the banks of the Mississippi River, in downtown Wabasha.
Shalisa Maisrikrod was visiting from Australia and had never before seen a bald or golden eagle.
"I'm really interested in looking at the bald eagles because that's an iconic symbol of America," Maisrikrod said. "This is my first time in the United States, so I've got to come here."
The attraction's popularity with tourists has been a huge benefit to the local economy. Visitors have been making the trip ever since word began spreading a quarter century ago that eagles were making a comeback.
"It started as a grassroots organization of local folks noticing people were coming into Wabasha to see eagles," said Scott Mehus, the center's director of education.
Mehus said that visitors come from every country and every continent to learn about the efforts that brought our eagles back from the brink.
He pointed out that between 1968 and 1972 only one nesting pair was documented between Wabasha and Rock Island, Illinois.
Today, there are at least 313 pairs of nesting eagles in that same corridor. In Minnesota about 2,300 nesting eagles reproduce each year.
But as the mission grows, so too does the need for more space. The center is now in the process of converting a nearby storefront downtown. A successful fund drive last month will help pay for an expanded eagle training space.
That will give staff the tools they need to keep visitors in wide-eyed amazement.
"There're not too many places in Minnesota where you come and see a bald eagle up close, and then look at the beautiful, mighty Mississippi River and see an eagle fly by at the same time," Mehus said.
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