WASHINGTON George Wallace, a vice president at the
American Bird Conservancy, remembers seeing his first bald eagle as
a high school student. It was during a trip to Plum Island in
Massachusetts. And was it ever a rarity.
"Seeing a bald eagle in the mid '70s was a big deal,'' says
Wallace, now chief conservation officer with the conservation
organization. "It was something you really looked forward to
"Now, to be honest, bald eagles are pretty common.''
Wallace spoke of the recovery of the American bald eagle as the
Interior Department prepared to announced on Thursday that the
majestic bird, once almost wiped out by hunters and DDT poisoning,
is being removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
A national symbol, the bald eagle has not only survived, but it
Government biologists have counted nearly 10,000 mating pairs of
bald eagles, including at least one pair in each of 48 contiguous
states, giving assurance that the bird's survival is no longer in
The eagle population hit bottom in 1963 when only 417 mating
pairs could be documented in the 48 states and its future survival
as a species was in doubt.
There were once believed to be as many as a half million bald
eagles in North America, predating the Europeans' arrival. The
Continental Congress put the bird onto the country's official seal
in 1782, although Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey and called
the eagle a "bird of bad moral character.''
The Interior Department has been mulling over what to do about
the bald eagle for eight years since government biologists in 1999
concluded its recovery had been a success.
Earlier this year, a federal court directed Interior to make a
decision on the bird's status by this Friday, acting in a lawsuit
by a Minnesota man who complained the government's delays kept him
from developing seven acres that included an eagle's nest.
Damien Schiff, attorney for Pacific Legal Foundation which
represents the developer, said Wednesday the delisting is "a
victory for property owners.'' But he worried a proposed eagle
protection plan using another law will still be too restrictive.
Conservationists called the eagle recovery a vindication of the
1973 Endangered Species Act, which has been under attack from
property rights and business groups, and the subject of internal
review at the Interior Department.
Environmentalists worry changes in implementing the law will
make it harder keep plants and animals from disappearing,
especially ones lacking the symbolism of the bald eagle.
"No other species has that advantage,'' says Michael Bean, an
endangered species expert at Environmental Defense. "It's the
John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation, called the
eagle resurgence "truly one of America's great wildlife success
stories'' that shows the federal law is needed and can work.
"The rescue of the bald eagle
ranks among the greatest
victories of American conservation,'' said John Flicker, president
of the National Audubon Society, whose group's annual bird count
shows "the eagle has recovered across America.''
The bird, first declared endangered in 1967, was not always held
with such affection. Over the decades, it was both revered and
hated which almost brought its demise.
A majestic bird with a wing span that can extend more than seven
feet and powerful talons that allow it to swoop down and grab its
prey be it fish in a mountain lake or a rabbit or raccoon was
viewed by many as a scavenger, nuisance and dangerous predator.
It was hunted for its feathers, shot from airplanes, the subject
of a 50-cent bounty in Alaska, poisoned in some states and fed to
hogs in others. Congress passed a law in 1940, still on the books,
that made killing a bald eagle illegal.
But the bird's decline accelerated, thanks to DDT, the
insecticide that began to be widely used in the 1940s to control
mosquitoes. DDT seeped into lakes and streams and into fish, the
eagle's favorite food, harming adult birds and their eggs.
When DDT was banned in 1972, the eagle's recovery began,