THE bald eagle - United States symbol of freedom - has reason to feel more secure this Fourth of July, Independence Day. After years as an endangered species close to extinction, the eagle has been ``downlisted'' by federal officials to a status of ``threatened.''
The good news for eagles, scheduled to be announced June 30 at a ceremony along the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is the result of several steps taken over the past two decades.
First, the pesticide DDT was banned in 1972. Biologists had found that when this chemical entered the food chain, eagles and other birds laid eggs with very thin and fragile shells. While residues of DDT remain more than 20 years later, halting its use has benefited eagles.
Then, in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed. Under this landmark legislation, no one may ``harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect'' fish or wildlife listed under the act.
Increasing the penalty for killing a bald eagle to a $50,000 fine and one year in prison greatly reduced such illegal activity. Harmful pesticides were restricted or banned. The threat of lead poisoning was removed with the 1985 banning of lead shot used to hunt waterfowl eaten by eagles.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service began a captive breeding program in 1976. In addition, federal funds authorized under the Endangered Species Act were used to protect and acquire nesting and winter roosting sites. As a result, the number of adult nesting bald eagles has increased from fewer than 1,600 in the continental United States 20 years ago to more than 7,000 today, and in some parts of the country it is possible to see them in large numbers. At the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge along the Oregon-California border, nearly 1,000 bald eagles that have flown south from Canada and Montana now gather to spend the winter - along with thousands of bird watchers who come from all over the country to see them.
``This is a major success under the Endangered Species Act,'' says Karyn Strickler, campaign director of the Endangered Species Coalition, which consists of 125 environmental, scientific, and business organizations.
``But one of the other things we need to keep in mind as we celebrate,'' Ms. Strickler continues, ``is that the very law that allowed the bald eagle to recover is itself endangered by so-called reformers.''
The act has come under increasing attack from developers, farmers, the timber industry, and other groups that have felt the economic impact of protecting endangered species.
An amendment proposed by Rep. W.J. (Billy) Tauzin (D) of Louisiana would require ``far greater consideration of socio-economics'' in all endangered species decisions affecting land and water use. It also provides compensation for private property owners ``substantially deprived of the economically viable use of the property due to ESA restrictions.''
Congressional critics (including 108 co-sponsors of the Tauzin amendments) also want two public hearings in every county affected by a proposed endangered species listing.
In the case of the bald eagle, points out attorney Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund, this would have meant nearly 3,000 public hearings costing more than $10 million before an eagle-recovery plan could be implemented - by which time the bird might have been wiped out.
In response to public and congressional critics (and to recent court decisions that could weaken the Endangered Species Act) Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt earlier this month announced several policy changes. Among these: independent scientific review of listing and recovery decisions; inclusion of local interests on recovery teams; letting landowners know what they can do as soon as a species is listed; a greater role for state agencies; and closer cooperation among federal agencies.
The eagle's recovery is one of only a handful of endangered species fully recovered from the threat of extinction: More than 1,400 other plant and animal species remain on the list, and several thousand more are candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.