Endangered-Species Success Story: Bald Eagles May Soon Be off List

Back From The Brink

Haliaeetus leucocephalus is back.

The rapturous raptor known more simply as the American bald eagle is swooping its stealthy claws into so many lakes, rivers, and streams coast to coast that federal officials are now set to remove the national symbol from the endangered species list.

Classified as endangered in 1978, the bald eagle was reclassified into the less-periled category of "threatened" three years ago. After regional, state-by-state hearings that begin this week in Sacramento, Calif., the new rule could become law as early as late 1999.

"This is super good news that may be the greatest success story yet of the Endangered Species Act," says Jody Millar, bald eagle recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who will draft the language officially delisting the bald eagle. "The bald eagle comeback has shown that to be effective ... government laws ... need to be bolstered by the efforts of citizens, civic groups, environmental groups, and business to be successful."

Brought to the brink of extinction by development and widespread use of DDT in controlling mosquitoes in coastal and wetland areas, the only eagle unique to North America was listed as endangered throughout the lower 48 states after the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also established five recovery plans for five geographical regions, each with different challenges and goals. In the subsequent 20 years, the number of breeding pairs in the wild has moved from the low 100s to more than 5,000.

Observers say the banning of DDT, the strict enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and the slow-but-methodical application of restoration projects in a half-dozen areas have brought the eagle's numbers to levels where no more federal protection is needed. In addition, the proliferation of man-made reservoirs built for both recreation and development needs has helped the bald eagle replenish its own numbers.

Doing the dirty work

But many say that public and private groups that obtain eaglets from areas in Alaska and Canada and release them in the continental United States have been a key to the process.

The Vantana Wilderness Society, for example, has tracked eagles from Alaska to northern California, sending intrepid climbers up mountains, cliffs, and 100-foot trees to snatch eggs or young out of eagle nests. With a method called "hacking," the eaglets nurtured in captivity are then placed on man-made towers in remote areas and later released when capable of flight.

"We set up an artificial expansion rate that has simply speeded up what would have happened naturally," says Kelly Sorenson, biologist for the Vantana Wilderness Sanctuary in California, which has captured, nurtured, and released 66 bald eagles, including eight mating pairs, during the past decade.

Several similar groups in other states helped release about 500 more pairs during the same period.

"One thing the general public doesn't understand is how much time it takes to recover from the kind of mass destruction that hit the American bald eagle," adds Ms. Sorenson. "Thousands of birds had been killed off over decades and the rate of recovery is about four times as slow."

Different states, different plans

One thing that could slow the formal delisting process is the attitude of different states in protecting the bald eagle. Some have their own laws protecting the bird.

"It's still a very emotional issue," says Robert Mesta, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, Calif. "A lot of people have grown up with the eagle safely ensconced on the endangered list and they don't like what they see as a diminished commitment."

To assuage such fears, Mr. Mesta and others remind the public that the bald eagle will still be protected by two federal acts, the Bald Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which will remain in place after the eagle is delisted. Several states will continue to protect the bird as endangered, and many will continue to have management plans for its continued growth.

Partly because of such concerns, many observers feel the delisting of the bald eagle, one of only 25 species to be delisted in the history of the Endangered Species Act, will mark a significant test of the controversial legislation.

"Most people think the whole point of this law is to list species and then just protect them forever and ever," says Mesta. "But the real acid test is to help a species recover and take it off the list. We think this will be the best example yet of that principle successfully working."

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