Eagles' Flight Path: From 'Endangered' to 'Threatened'

THE American bald eagle, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, "is making a remarkable comeback." Having been just about wiped out by man-made threats like pesticides (which weaken its egg shells) the symbol of American beauty and might is three-quarters of the way along the road to recovery, as defined by the Endangered Species Act.

"The dramatic increase in bald-eagle nesting over the past decade has prompted a reevaluation of its endangered status in much of its range," says Karen Steenhof, a wildlife biologist who heads the Pacific bald-eagle recovery team from her post with the US Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Idaho.

Still, recovery from "endangered" status (facing extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range) to "threatened" (thought likely to become endangered in the near future) to final removal from the official list is a long, complicated, and expensive process. It's measured incrementally - breeding pairs increasing by 2 or 3 percent a year, since about 70 percent of newborn bald eagles do not survive their first year.

And even though DDT and some other poisonous chemicals have been banned for about 20 years, "There are a number of factors working against us in keeping eagles alive," says Gary Roemer, a research biologist at University of California Los Angeles who works on eagle recovery at Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. Among these continuing threats are high-power lines, illegal hunting, banned chemicals still in the environment and brought to the surface through dredging, and newer pois ons like PCBs.

While the numbers of bald eagles in the contiguous United States dwindled to just 400 nesting pairs in the 1960s, the population is now back up to more than 3,000 birds.

Despite this success, the bald eagle is still listed as endangered in all but six of the 48 contiguous states (Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, and Idaho), where it is considered threatened. About 35,000 bald eagles are in Alaska, where it is not listed.

Much of the recovery in recent years has been in the Pacific Northwest, where the number of nesting pairs has increased 211 percent over the past decade. In other areas, success is measured bird by bird.

Thirteen adult eagles now live on Santa Catalina Island, with one juvenile and three nest sites, says Mr. Roemer, who notes that the 12-year reintroduction program has cost more than $500,000. "In 1990, we fledged the first eagle out of a nest on Santa Catalina in almost 40 years," he told a conference at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls.

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