Bald Eagle No Longer Threatened Species

Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne is expected to announce that the bald eagle is no longer listed as a threatened species. The population has risen since the early 1960s from 417 nesting pairs to more than 10,000 nesting pairs today. Steve Inskeep, John Nielsen

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today in Washington, D.C., the secretary of the interior will step before the Jefferson Memorial, and there he's expected to announce that the U.S. government no longer considers the bald eagle to be a threatened species.

NPR's environment correspondent John Nielsen has been following the eagle's comeback. John, welcome back to the program.

JOHN NIELSEN: Hi. How are you?

INSKEEP: How did the bald eagle get in so much trouble in the first place?

NIELSEN: Well, it got in trouble for a variety of reasons, but the main one is DDT - the pesticide that got sprayed all over every crop in the country after World War II - was spread on all these crops, got into a lot of bugs. It got into a lot of little fish that got into the bald eagles, and then made their eggs so soft that when the eagles would sit on the eggs, they would squash them. And so the populations went way, way, way down. And in 1962, there were only 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states…

INSKEEP: How many now?

NIELSEN: …and they were on their way out. And now, there are more than 10,000, and the official goal for recovery set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service back when they made the bald eagle one of the first officially endangered species was 3,900. So there's - were more than recovered.

INSKEEP: We should explain the system here. Endangered means that the species could become extinct. Threatened is a little better, but still trouble. And now it's going to get off the threatened list. And that means - according to the government, anyway - the eagle is okay?

NIELSEN: It means that the eagle is okay. And another thing I should add, though, is that in Alaska, the bald eagle's never been in trouble. So endangered can mean an endangered set of populations. It doesn't mean the entire species.

INSKEEP: So does everybody agree that the bald eagle is thriving in the lower 48 now?

NIELSEN: Yes, everybody agrees that it is thriving in the lower 48. But that's where the arguments starts, because there's a whole new set of problems that have arisen over the years, and those problems are almost all habitat-based. They had to do with people developing the shorelines for the eagles, like, to sit on the trees, along the rivers, near the lakes where they go out and get their fish.

And there was a lot of pressure put on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service back when they first announced their intention to take the bald eagle off the list in 1999 to put some additional protections in place. And it's expected that today, it will be announced that the eagle will be protected a little more fully under a different law called the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940.

But there are some groups that say that that's going to restrict their ability to develop their land, and they may go to court.

INSKEEP: So do you basically have developers lining up against environmentalists here over the future of the bald eagle?

NIELSEN: I don't think you do. I think that there will be isolated fights over particular parcels of land that are desired both by developers and by bald eagles. But I don't think that the species is going to be threatened for the foreseeable future. And I don't think that there's going to be a lot of arguing about the announcement. I think there's going to be a lot of rejoicing, because it's the national symbol.

INSKEEP: Would you remind us how this bird did become a national symbol?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NIELSEN: It became the national symbol because Congress voted it the national symbol back in 1782 when there were about a hundred thousand nesting pairs of bald eagles. They did it over the loud objections of Benjamin Franklin, who preferred the wild turkey and wrote in a rather famous letter that he considered the bald eagle to be, and I quote, "a rank coward of bad moral character," because it basically sat around in trees and took fish that other (unintelligible) had already chosen.

But, of course, there were people who thought otherwise. There were people who thought the eagle sacred and regal and a good representative of wilderness, and they are the ones who won out.

INSKEEP: More than a couple of centuries later, still with us.

NIELSEN: Yes.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Nielsen, thanks very much.

NIELSEN: Thank you.

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