Has the Bald Eagle Landed? Environmentalists Are Split On Delisting America's National Symbol

Just 30 years ago, the once-abundant bald eagle—America’s national symbol—was in danger of extinction in its primary habitat across the contiguous 48 states. DDT poisoning, plume hunting and sprawl had conspired against the majestic raptor, despite safeguards under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Fewer than 500 breeding pairs existed, and the outlook was grim.

But with the banning of DDT in 1972 and passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, eagle populations began to rebound. By July of 1995, the species had recovered to 5,700 pairs, and at that point was upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” status under the ESA. Today, biologists estimate that more than 7,600 breeding pairs inhabit the lower 48 states, and the Bush administration has proposed delisting the species once and for all by year’s end.

While no one questions that conservation efforts have made the eagle’s recovery possible, even the environmental community is split on whether delisting the bird is a good idea. Some say that the eagle’s recovery has exceeded expectations and that delisting would be the culmination and celebration of a great American conservation success story—proof that the ESA works.

“The species” numbers have steadily increased over the past three decades, so much so that in some areas, such as the Chesapeake Bay region, there are hundreds more eagles today than there were prior to the DDT era,” says endangered species law expert Michael Bean of Environmental Defense, which was instrumental in the banning of DDT. Last spring, Environmental Defense lobbied the White House to put forth the most recent eagle delisting proposal.

But other environmentalists worry that this proposal may be based more on political expediency than sound science. They point to the Bush administration’s penchant for removing restrictions on land and resource development. And they note that ESA-mandated protections for prime eagle territory would no longer be in effect. Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), says earlier efforts by the Clinton White House to delist the eagle stalled after federal biologists warned that contaminants in the environment and habitat loss were still preventing some eagle populations from achieving robust reproduction rates.

Jeremy Buck of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says federal eagle monitoring has been virtually non-existent in the years since, primarily due to budget cutbacks. This lack of data worries observers.”The objectives were not met in 1999, and I’ve seen no indication that they’ve been met today,” says Suckling. “Therefore, it is premature, and illegal, to delist.”But federal officials retort that they plan to gather additional eagle monitoring data from a range of public and private sources before making a decision.

The FWS says pre-existing state and federal laws will protect eagles even after delisting. The 1940 act—still in effect today—prevents the taking or molestation of individual eagles and nests. But that’s insufficient, according to CBD’s Suckling. “Habitat loss is the greatest threat to the bald eagle. History has shown that neither the 1940 federal law nor state laws are adequate to protect eagle habitat. Only the ESA has that power,” he says.

Suckling cites as an example the recent case of the FWS invoking the ESA to prevent development at Big Bear Lake in southern California due to concerns about habitat for overwintering eagles. “State law and the Bald Eagle Protection Act were not applicable,” says Suckling.

Federal officials have put forth similar proposals to take the gray wolf and the grizzly bear off the threatened species list as well. These great American conservation success stories underscore how important the ESA has been. As new, larger threats to wildlife—including widespread habitat loss and global warming—loom, though, environmentalists are left wondering if we’re celebrating victory in the war against species loss a little too soon.