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Bald eagle may fly off the endangered-species list

2/2/2007
A bald eagle nests above Raystown Lake near Huntingdon, Pa. Pennsylvania's campaign to re-establish its bald eagle population, which began in 1983 with only 3 pairs of the birds, has succeeded as now there are more than 100 nests in the state. AP

The bald eagle, America's signature bird, is likely to be removed
from the endangered-species list within two weeks, after one of the
most successful conservation efforts in history.

But the delisting itself isn't the result of direct action by
environmentalists. The eagle is about to leave the federal nest
because of a lawsuit by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, a
nonprofit law firm that has waged war against environmental
regulation.

Its chief target over the past three decades has been the federal
Endangered Species Act, the legal framework that saved the bald eagle.

``The Endangered Species Act is a statute which has tremendously
long and sharp teeth,'' said the group's president, Rob Rivett. ``We
haven't been striving to delist the bald eagle. We've been striving to
make sure the Endangered Species Act is enforced correctly and is not
misused.''

The eagle with the piercing stare has symbolized America and
freedom itself in almost every imaginable way, from government seals
and postage stamps to pickup-truck advertising and the National Rifle
Association logo.

Now the bald eagle, once considered a pest that was thought to
harass livestock, will also stand as a symbol of the American
conservation ethic.

``The eagle is a powerful example that the recovery of
once-endangered species is within our means,'' said Michael Bean, who
chairs the wildlife program at Environmental Defense.

The bald eagle was first declared an endangered species in 1967,
under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the precursor to
today's law. It was among the first imperiled species to attain this
dubious honor.

Over the years, the eagle's protected status dragged on, even as
its population surged.

President Bill Clinton first promised to delist it in 1999, with a
bald eagle at his side during a White House ceremony.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service never followed through, claiming
the bird's wide-ranging nature and diverse habitats complicated
planning for the status change.

So the Pacific Legal Foundation agreed to represent Edmund
Contoski, a Minnesota property owner who claims he was prevented from
subdividing a lakefront parcel because bald eagles nested in the
trees.

The Sacramento, Calif.-based foundation sued in 2005, hoping to
force delisting.

``As of 1999, at least, the government had concluded the eagle had
been recovered,'' said Damien Schiff, the foundation attorney handling
the eagle case. ``Yet our client and many others like him throughout
the country had to labor under these restrictions, unnecessarily, for
seven years.''

In August 2006, a federal judge agreed with Schiff and Contoski,
ordering the government to rule on the eagle's status by Feb. 16. Most
observers expect the decision will be to delist the eagle.
Environmental groups support that.

The eagle's numbers for 2006, still estimates, indicate there are
9,350 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states, a dramatic improvement
from about 417 in 1963.

But don't count on a truce. Battles are already brewing over how
the eagle should be managed after delisting.

The birds will remain protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle
Protection Act. The 1940 law was passed to control overhunting of
eagles, long before DDT came on the scene. The law made it illegal to
``disturb'' a bald eagle, but how that word is defined in the wake of
delisting carries huge significance.

Also, some environmental groups want the Southwest population of
the bald eagle, mostly in Arizona, to remain protected by the
Endangered Species Act as a distinct population.

``The government does a lousy quality-control job of fulfilling its
obligations,'' said Bill Curtiss, deputy director of Earthjustice, a
nonprofit law firm that is PLF's ideological opposite. ``That is a
fact that we and PLF agree on.''

Both sides also agree that the government's ban on the pesticide
DDT in 1972 contributed most to the eagle's recovery. DDT thinned
eggshells and caused widespread reproductive failure.

The environmental movement rightly takes credit for the DDT ban, as
well as the Endangered Species Act itself, which allowed protection of
eagle habitat.

That protection also gave rise to the property-rights movement, and
Pacific Legal Foundation became its litigious battering ram.

The foundation helps farmers, property owners and small businesses
fight environmental laws. It has filed hundreds of lawsuits across the
country, challenging government actions that it claims restrict
property rights and the free hand of commerce.

It has also challenged affirmative-action rules, and defended the
Boy Scouts' policy of excluding gays and atheists.

The foundation has had many victories, including delisting the
Oregon coast coho salmon, in 2004.

Curtiss said Rivett's group is really out to dismantle and
undermine the Endangered Species Act, and has served as a ``cloak''
for the home-building industry.

``In the bald eagle case, they represent a guy who's a
subdivider,'' Curtiss said.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)