STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's an update on your national bird. The government's top wildlife biologist says a proposal to protect bald eagles will not work. NPR has obtained an internal memo that he wrote. It calls on the Bush administration to abandon its proposal for managing bald eagles once they are removed from the endangered species list.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: By the mid 1960s, the pesticide DDT had pushed bald eagles to the verge of extinction. Since then, they've been protected by the Endangered Species Act. And they've been a remarkable comeback. Now, there are more than 14,000 eagles across the country. In fact, they're doing so well the Bush administration might take the eagle off the endangered species list as early as next week.
But biologists and environmentalists say the government's plans for protecting the bird in the future are inadequate.
Attorney JOHN KOSTYACK (Lawyer, National Wildlife Federation): If they go forward with their proposal, I think the eagle is left virtually unprotected from harm caused by development.
SHOGREN: John Kostyack is a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation. He says 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? The administration has proposed one definition, but the memo obtained by NPR shows that federal biologists say it won't safeguard eagles. Dale Hall, who heads the Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote the memo in late September. It says the proposed definition of disturb would be, quote, "very difficult to enforce without evidence of a dead or injured eagle."
Environmentalist John Kostyack agrees.
Attorney KOSTYACK: If the current proposal goes forward, developers will be essentially told that it's okay 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 may be able to successfully breed.
SHOGREN: Kostyack says Hall and other federal biologists suggested a better definition.
Atty. KOSTYACK: They essentially said if it's likely to disturb the bird, if it's likely to cause injury or death or difficulties with reproduction, then a developer is forewarned that it's prohibited by the Bald Eagle Act.
SHOGREN: 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.
Ms. ELIZA SAVAGE (Fish and Wildlife Service): At that point, a decision was made not to re-propose it that way.
SHOGREN: That's Eliza Savage. She's a Fish and Wildlife service employee writing the rules. Savage says these decisions were made far above her pay level.
Ms. SAVAGE: The ultimate decisions are made in my absence. Let's just say that.
SHOGREN: But not by the Fish and Wildlife Service at all, but by the top political bosses at the interior department?
Ms. SAVAGE: Well, yeah, actually.
SHOGREN: She stressed that no final decision has been made.
Ms. SAVAGE: So I actually can't comment on whether or not these concerns will or will not be addressed in the final definition.
SHOGREN: John Kostyack from the National Wildlife Federation says the current fight is just another example of Bush administration officials ignoring the best government science.
Attorney KOSTYACK: They're essentially saying that we will continue strong protection of the eagle using the Bald Eagle Act, and no acknowledgement whatsoever that there is essentially universal scientific criticism of the approach that they're recommending.
SHOGREN: 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.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
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