Bald eagle comes off endangered species list in Washington State

The national icon has seen a resurgence across many states, indicating that conservation efforts are working.

Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun/AP
A bald eagle hovers above the Manchester Dock with Seattle in the background, in April 2014.

America’s bird has soared off another state’s endangered species list.

Washington State removed the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon from its list, announced the Fish and Wildlife Commission, a citizen panel that sets policy for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The action in Washington is part of a national recovery effort that has seen the bald eagle population flourish since it was first placed on the federal Endangered Species List in 1967. When the United States was first founded, an estimated 100,000 nesting bald eagles lived within what are now its continental borders. But habitat loss and pollutants such as DDT reduced that number to just a few hundred pairs fifty years ago. Now, states are seeing their populations rebound in what is being hailed as a conservation success story.

“It’s indicative of what we as a species can do if we set our minds to it,” Mitchell Byrd, a retired professor who has participated in the Virginia bald eagle survey for 40 years, told the Associated Press.

The iconic bald eagle was one of the first species added to the national Endangered Species List, after DDT and other pollutants decimated its populations.  Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane, a potent pesticide, was used in the 1940s and 1950s, contaminating the fish eagles ate. An eagle poisoned by DDT would lay eggs with weakened shells that cracked when the nesting female sat on them, making it difficult for the species to successfully hatch chicks, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Eva Botkin-Kowacki has reported.

But years of habitat preservation, combined with banning DDT and other harmful pesticides, has led to a resurgence. The striking black-and-white bird was taken off the national Endangered Species List in 2007, and has seen major recoveries in states including Virginia, New Hampshire, Vermont, and California.

The continental United States now has 10,000 nesting pairs nationwide, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and bald eagles are officially classified as animals of "Least Concern" because their population is increasing.

The eagle remains protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prevents the trade and sale of bald eagles or its parts throughout its migratory area.

But the raptors still face threats. Bald eagles are killed in the thousands nationwide by wind turbines and can get lead poisoning from fish exposed to abandoned fishing gear and ammunition. In northern New England, they are also losing habitat to lakeshore development, especially on islands.

Washington State also saw its eagle population move west earlier in the winter this past year. Wildlife experts there attributed the move to low chum salmon returns in the state’s rivers, and salmon being smaller than normal, according to the Skagit Valley Herald. Local experts told the newspaper that eagles migrating south from Alaska and Canada may have moved on to other places for food.

But some experts say they expect the eagle population to peak in other parts of the country.

Bryan Watts, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, told the AP that breeding space in Virginia is at a premium. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is a major feeding ground in the summer and winter, drawing eagles all the way from Canada and Florida. But an increasing number of injuries and deaths related to intra-species combat points to how crowded this feeding space has become.

Another sign, says Dr. Watts, is the speed at which a mate is replaced. Bald eagles typically mate for life, he said. But now, when one partner dies, “there is a string of suitors immediately that comes into the space.” 

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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