for National Geographic News
More than 30 years ago the bald eagleUnited States' national symbol of strength and freedomhad almost vanished from the skies.
At that time, biologists believed less than 500 breeding pairs lived in the lower 48 states.
Today that's changed. Federal protection and a ban on the pesticide DDT has helped the raptor's population soar to more than 7,600 breeding pairs. Now the government is moving forward with plans to remove the bird from the U.S. endangered species list, possibly next year.
Also underway are controversial plans to remove a grizzly bear population from the endangered species list, where the bear has been listed as threatened since 1975.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is widely regarded as the world's strongest and most effective wildlife conservation law. Currently, 1,843 species are listed.
Under the law, plants and animals heading toward extinction are labeled as either endangered or threatened. "Endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all, or a significant part, of its range. "Threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
Through federal protection, at-risk populations are given the chance to rebound. Once a population recovers, it's taken off the endangered species list.
Tim Male, a biologist with Environmental Defense, an advocacy group in New York City, said the bald eagle's recovery has been a success story.
Now, he said, it's time to celebrate by removing the once threatened bird from the list.
"We have a lot more species that we really need to be directing resources at, so it would be nice to have the victory party and put more resources into the other things we need to do," he said.
The organization is urging the government to expedite delisting of the bald eagle, which was originally proposed under the Clinton Administration in 1999. Normally the process takes one year.
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