Bald Eagle May Leave Endangered List

A bald eagle on its perch in Homer, Alaska. i i

A bald eagle in Homer, Alaska. Frank Leung/iStockPhoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Leung/iStockPhoto.com
A bald eagle on its perch in Homer, Alaska.

A bald eagle in Homer, Alaska.

Frank Leung/iStockPhoto.com

An Eagle Timeline

  • The bald eagle was named the national bird on June 20, 1782.
  • As settlers expanded around the Chesapeake Bay, habitat destruction led to the first decline in the birds' population.
  • By the late 1800s.hunters and poisoned bait placed by livestock farmers led to a larger decline.
  • In 1940, the Bald Eagle Act, which prohibited killing or selling the birds, became law.
  • The use of the pesticide DDT from the 1940s to the 1960s hurt the nesting pairs, in large part by weakening their eggs' shells.
  • In 1967, the bald eagle was declared endangered south of the 40th parallel.
  • DDT was banned for most uses in the United States in 1972.
  • The Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.
  • On July 4, 1976, the bald eagle was declared an endangered species.
  • Recovery of the population led to an upgrade from "endangered" to "threatened" in 1995.
  • Sources: Fish and Wildlife Services, state natural resource pages.

Bald Eagle Facts

The white feathers on the necks and heads of the birds don't come in until the birds are 5 or 6 years old. Before that, they are nearly all brown.

Bald eagles live 15 to 25 years in the wild.

The best time to spot a bald eagle in the wild is in late winter or early spring, before leaves come in on the trees.

Eagles like to live near a large body of water.

Sources: Fish and Wildlife Services, state natural resource pages.

The U.S. government's top wildlife biologist says a Bush administration proposal to protect bald eagles won't do the job.

NPR has obtained an internal government memo by Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall. In it, he calls on his bosses to abandon a key part of their proposal for managing bald eagles once they're removed from the endangered species list.

The bald eagle has made such a remarkable comeback from the brink of extinction that the national bird might come off the endangered species list later this month.

Biologists and environmentalists say the government's plans for protecting more than 14,000 bald eagles after they leave the list are inadequate.

"If they go forward with their proposal, I think the eagle is essentially unprotected from harm caused by development," said John Kostyack, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation.

He said that when the eagle comes off the list, it will be protected by other federal laws — primarily the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. He says how much protection the eagle gets could come down to how the Bush administration defines just one word, "disturb." The law says it's illegal to disturb an eagle. But what does that mean?

In Hall's memo, he wrote that the proposed definition of disturb would be "very difficult to enforce without evidence of a dead or injured eagle."

Environmentalist John Kostyack agrees. "If the current proposal goes forward, developers will be essentially told that it's OK to pull up right next to a nesting tree and operate a jackhammer, and completely agitate eagles, to the point where they're no longer going to be able to breed."

Kostyack says Hall and other federal biologists suggested a better definition.

"They essentially said that if it's likely to disturb a bird, if it's likely to cause an injury or death, then a developer is forewarned that it's prohibited by the Bald Eagle Act."

A Fish and Wildlife Service official confirmed that Hall wanted his bosses to propose a new definition. But they ignored his advice in late December.

A spokesperson for the Interior Department said department officials would not have an immediate comment on the contents of the leaked memo.

Eliza Savage, the Fish and Wildlife Service employee writing the rules, says these decisions were made far above her pay level.

"The ultimate decisions are made, ah, in my absence, let's just say that," she said.

She stressed that no final decision has been made.

John Kostyack from National Wildlife Federation says the current fight is just another example of Bush administration officials ignoring the best government science.

A court has ordered the Bush administration to decide whether to take the eagle off the endangered species list by next week. But a decision on how to define disturb might not be ready by then.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department said department officials would not be able to comment on the leaked memo before the deadline.

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