Bald Eagle Leaves Endangered Species List

Bald eagles are no longer endangered. AP.

The Interior Department removed the American bald eagle from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Hal Korber/AP Photos hide caption

itoggle caption Hal Korber/AP Photos

The Interior Department said Thursday that it is removing the American bald eagle from protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The announcement by Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne caps a four-decade struggle to help the national symbol recover.

Once almost wiped out by hunters and DDT poisoning, the eagle not only has survived but is thriving.

Government biologists have counted nearly 10,000 mating pairs of bald eagles, with at least one pair in each of the lower 48 states.

"The rescue of the bald eagle ... ranks among the greatest victories of American conservation," said John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society.

The eagle population hit rock bottom in 1963, when only 417 mating pairs could be documented in the 48 states and the survival of the species was in question. It was one of the first species to be declared endangered.

DDT, a synthetic pesticide, was to blame for much of the species depletion. The pesticide was widely used in the 1940s to control mosquitoes; it seeped into lakes and streams and into fish, the eagle's favorite food, harming adult birds and their eggs.

Eagles also were targeted by hunters for their feathers. They were shot from airplanes, poisoned in some states and fed to hogs in others, until Congress passed a law in 1940 that made killing a bald eagle illegal.

The eagle has been the nation's symbol since 1782, when Congress chose its image for the country's official seal — over the loud protests of Benjamin Franklin, who preferred the wild turkey and called the bald eagle a "bird of bad moral character."

The interior department had been considering what to do about the bald eagle since 1999, when government biologists concluded its recovery was a success.

Earlier this year, a federal court directed the Interior Department to make a decision on the bird's status by June 29. The push for a decision came amid a lawsuit by a Minnesota developer who said the government's delays were keeping him from developing seven acres of land where an eagle had nested.

Damien Schiff, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation that represents the developer, said the delisting is a victory for property owners. But he worries that a proposed eagle protection plan using another law — the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 — will be too restrictive.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act would make it illegal to kill or disturb the bird.

The Fish and Wildlife Department determined what activities are disturbing to eagles — and one of those is building a house where bald eagles are nesting.

Some groups say the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act will restrict development, and they may go to court. Parcels of land that are desired both by developers and by bald eagles likely will lead to isolated disputes.

The bird is admired by some people, and viewed as a nuisance or a dangerous predator by others.

But conservationists say the eagle's recovery shows that the 1973 Endangered Species Act works. The Act has been under attack from property rights and business groups, and it is the subject of an internal review in the Interior Department.

Environmentalists worry that changes will weaken the law, making it harder to keep plants and animals from disappearing, especially those lacking the symbolism of the bald eagle.

"No other species has that advantage," said Michael Bean, an endangered species expert at Environmental Defense. "It's the national symbol."

Written by Kayla Webley from NPR reports and The Associated Press.

Eagle Population Up, But Prime Habitat Threatened

The first of a two-part series.

Graph showing the increase in the bald eagle population from 1963-2000. i i

Bald eagles have made a resurgence in the United States because of a ban on DDT and protection provided by the Endangered Species Act. Despite the bird's booming populations, biologists are concerned that prime eagle habitat is rapidly being taken over by development. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Graph showing the increase in the bald eagle population from 1963-2000.

Bald eagles have made a resurgence in the United States because of a ban on DDT and protection provided by the Endangered Species Act. Despite the bird's booming populations, biologists are concerned that prime eagle habitat is rapidly being taken over by development.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Hear Part 2 of This Report:

The Chesapeake Bay region is home to almost 1,000 pairs of bald eagles — up from 60 pairs 30 years ago. Lindsay Mangum, NPR/Source: Bryan D. Watts, Center for Conservation Biology, College of William and Mary. hide caption

Click on the map to see eagle nesting patterns.
itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR/Source: Bryan D. Watts, Center for Conservation Biology, College of William and Mary.
Eagle flies from nest with eggs near Chesapeake Bay i i

An eagle flies from its nesting site on the Potomac River. Thousands of eagles migrate to the Chesapeake Bay each year from Florida, New England, and Canada. Bryan Watts hide caption

itoggle caption Bryan Watts
Eagle flies from nest with eggs near Chesapeake Bay

An eagle flies from its nesting site on the Potomac River. Thousands of eagles migrate to the Chesapeake Bay each year from Florida, New England, and Canada.

Bryan Watts
Eagle biologist Bryan Watts boards the small plane he uses to survey bald eagle populations. i i

Biologist Bryan Watts has been tracking eagles on the Chesapeake Bay for more than 20 years. From a small plane, he scouts the trees below for nesting sites. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Eagle biologist Bryan Watts boards the small plane he uses to survey bald eagle populations.

Biologist Bryan Watts has been tracking eagles on the Chesapeake Bay for more than 20 years. From a small plane, he scouts the trees below for nesting sites.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
One of the many new developments along the Potomac River that biologists worry will displace eagles. i i

Biologists are worried that new developments along the Potomac River will displace the eagles that have nested along the banks. Eighty percent of the eagles in the region nest on private property. Bryan Watts hide caption

itoggle caption Bryan Watts
One of the many new developments along the Potomac River that biologists worry will displace eagles.

Biologists are worried that new developments along the Potomac River will displace the eagles that have nested along the banks. Eighty percent of the eagles in the region nest on private property.

Bryan Watts
One of the many new developments along the Potomac River scientists worry will displace eagles. i i

A new development built in prime nesting habitat along the Potomac River. Bryan Watts hide caption

itoggle caption Bryan Watts
One of the many new developments along the Potomac River scientists worry will displace eagles.

A new development built in prime nesting habitat along the Potomac River.

Bryan Watts

As the federal government gears up to take the bald eagle off the endangered species list, biologists worry that the fast pace of waterfront development in key eagle habitat could make the majestic bird's robust numbers fleeting.

Just as the eagle is returning to its riparian roosts, people are snapping up waterfront properties at record numbers, experts say.

"There's a thin ribbon of land that both populations are really vying for," says Bryan Watts, a biologist at the College of William and Mary's Center for Conservation Biology. "Everybody wants to live along the waterfront. That's true of us — that's also true of eagles."

To get a close-up view of the problem, Watts takes to the skies on an aerial tour of eagle habitat. In a four-seater Cessna, Watts hugs the shorelines of the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C., at a low altitude of 200 to 300 feet.

Near the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac is wide — four miles across in some places. Watts says this is some of the most important habitat for bald eagles in the country. The eagles that live here represent a large portion of the 7,000 eagle pairs that currently breed in the lower 48 states.

Eagles are everywhere along the rural and sparsely populated stretches of the river and its tributaries. In addition to a vibrant population of resident birds that breed here annually, thousands of other eagles use the area as an essential feeding ground.

Birds from Florida fly up in the summer and birds from Canada and New England fly south in the winter. The Chesapeake Bay region provides a comfortable climate and plenty of food. Below, Watts spots a solitary eagle standing on the frozen river, finishing a meal of duck.

For 20 years, Watts has been flying over this area, studying the return of the eagle to the Chesapeake Bay. The number of nesting pairs has soared to nearly 1,000, from a low of 60.

During his flights, Watts sees hundreds of eagles. Many adults — with chocolate wings and bright white heads and tails — sit on nests, incubating eggs. Eagles are territorial when they're brooding, but some of the nests are as close as only a quarter-mile apart. Watts points out the very high breeding density in rural areas close to large creeks.

Unfortunately for the eagles, they aren't the only ones who want to build their homes along this waterfront.

"It's just point after point being consumed by development here," Watts says. "It's just like a wave that's running right down the Potomac. And the land values are just going out of sight here. Look at all of the open patches here that have just been cleared in the last year for new development... thousands of units that are going to go in shortly here."

Watts says that when people move in, eagles move out. Only 4 percent of the eagles in Virginia nest close to developed areas.

Below, a new development high on a bluff overlooks the Potomac. Watts says eagles used to nest here. He points out a few vacant lots at the end of a cul-de-sac. Watts says the developer was restricted from building on these lots because they were close to an eagle nest.

The nest has been abandoned for two years since the development went in, Watts says, and the developer now will be able to build houses on those lots.

Watts worries that the pace of construction will pick up if the eagle loses the protection of the Endangered Species Act, as expected. Another law, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, would take over but there is concern that it won't do as much to protect nests and may not protect feeding areas at all.

Decisions about whether to develop private land will be crucial to the eagle's future because very little of the eagle's habitat is protected within wildlife refuges or parks. Watts says about 80 percent of the eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region nest on private property.

Without the safeguards of habitat, Watts predicts that the Chesapeake Bay eagle population will decline in the next three or four decades.

Changes in the Chesapeake Bay habitat will not just affect local eagles, Watts warns. Because eagles from the whole Atlantic Coast use this area, fewer eagles in the Chesapeake Bay will mean fewer eagles from Canada to Florida.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.