Bald Eagle, Grizzly: U.S. Icons Endangered No More?

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
July 2, 2004
More than 30 years ago the bald eagle—United States' national
symbol of strength and freedom—had 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.

Cindy Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., said the removal process has been slow because of the bird's large range throughout North America.

"The bald eagle has a population in almost every state in our nation," she said. "We have to make sure that whatever we do for the species makes sense for it, rangewise."

Hoffman said the agency is currently working on formal guidelines regarding management of the species under the Bald Eagle Protection Act, a law passed in 1940 that prohibits killing or selling the raptor.

A 60-day public comment period will be held on both the formal guidelines and the bird's removal from the list.

A date for the public comment period has not been set. However, it will take place "in the near future," Hoffman said. Once information from the public comment period has been gathered and analyzed, Hoffman said a final decision will be made in less than one year.

Grizzly Bears

When Lewis and Clark explored the West in the early 1800s, as many as 100,000 wild grizzlies roamed the vast stretches of open and unpopulated land.

Today, with millions of people inhabiting the area, only a few remote areas remain where the bears can live and thrive. Scientists believe about a thousand of the solitary creatures currently roam densely vegetated areas in the western United States.

The largest grizzly population, with about 550 bears, is in the Yellowstone ecosystem, which covers 14,000 square miles (36,000 square kilometers) in the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

A formal proposal to remove the Yellowstone population from the endangered species list will be made in 2005, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

He said bears that live in four other ecosystems—Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak, North Cascades, and Selkirk—will remain listed as threatened.

"Many of those populations are small and at very high risk," Servheen said.

In fact, populations in three of those ecosystems will more than likely be listed as endangered in the future, he said. This is a more serous designation than the current threatened status.

If federal protection is removed, management of the Yellowstone bears will be turned over to the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Servheen said U.S. 3.4 million dollars in federal and state funding will then be spent each year to monitor and manage the bears.

The effort to save the Yellowstone grizzlies from disappearing has taken more than two decades. He said it has relied heavily on social acceptance of the animals and efforts to manage them.

"Basically all the people who live, work, and recreate in that area do things differently than they did 20-plus years ago, in terms of keeping their food away from bears. And all activities on public lands are done with consideration for bears, such as roadbuilding or timber harvesting," Servheen said.

Those steps, along with eliminating human-caused mortality, have allowed the grizzly population to grow quickly at 4 percent per year, he said.

The gizzly's range is also expanding.

"The bears are occupying places they haven't been in probably a hundred years," he said.

Premature Decision

Not everyone, though, is in favor of removing the bears from the endangered species list. Several environmental groups are against it, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Montana.

Tim Stevens, issues and outreach coordinator for the coalition, said it's too soon to remove federal protection because important food sources for the bears, like whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout, are dwindling.

If a food crisis occurs, he said, grizzlies may wander outside of their protected habitat looking for a meal, increasing the likelihood of human encounters and bear deaths.

"Until there are assurances that both their food sources and habitat are sufficiently protected, it doesn't make sense to lose ground on the gains that we've made over the past decade or so," Stevens said.

Grizzly bear expert Louisa Willcox, who works for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, Montana, also believes the government's plans are premature.

She said in order for the bears to survive long-term, their habitat needs protection.

The animals are extremely sensitive to development, she said, and need large, isolated areas to roam. A male's home range is about 900 square miles (2,300 square kilometers); a female's is about half that amount.

She said about one-third of the Yellowstone population currently lives outside of their protection zone, and that land is threatened by rural sprawl, as well as oil and gas development.

Not protecting the bears' current and future habitat needs will also affect genetic diversity. If federal protection is removed, Willcox said the Yellowstone population would essentially be stuck on an island, cut off from other, larger gene pools farther north.

To top it all off, she said, the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming may allow hunting of grizzlies after federal protection is removed—something that has been illegal for more than 25 years.

Servheen, from the Fish and Wildlife Service, said after delisting there will be strict limits on human-caused mortality and development, plus intensive monitoring of bears fitted with radio collars.

"Recovery and delisting doesn't mean that anybody can do anything they want again with bears and bear habitats," he said. "The level of intensity and concern for the bears remains the same."

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