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Bald Eagles Soar Off Endangered Species List, But Will Act Be Weakened?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 28, 2007
 
The bald eagle has rebounded from the brink of extinction, U.S. officials say, and in an announcement this morning the government removed it from the list of federally protected species.

Conservationists heralded the eagle's recovery as a success story that proves the U.S. Endangered Species Act works, but they voiced concern that the Supreme Court has weakened the act with rulings it made earlier this week.

Michael Daulton, director of conservation policy for the National Audubon Society in Washington, D.C., called the eagle's recovery "one of the greatest achievements for conservation in American history."

There were just 417 nesting pairs in 1963.

Vast habitat protections and a ban on the insecticide DDT are primarily responsible for the eagle population boom, which has brought the bird's numbers to nearly 10,000 nesting pairs today, he noted.

To the Brink and Back

At the turn of the 20th century, the bird of prey—and the U.S. national symbol—was hunted and its habitat logged as humans migrated west, explained Nicholas Throckmorton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C.

The service oversees the U.S. Endangered Species Act and made the delisting announcement this morning.

Concerned about dwindling populations, Congress in 1940 passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which made it illegal to shoot at, kill, or poison the birds.

"The eagles did go up from the time that act was passed until DDT came on the scene," Throckmorton said.

The insecticide, widely used in the 1950s and '60s, accumulated in the food chain and caused birds of prey to lay eggs with thinned eggshells, which hindered reproduction and brought the eagle population to its lowest point.

DDT was banned in 1972, and the eagles began to recover. Congress passed a precursor to the Endangered Species Act in 1967. The modern act was enacted in 1973, and the bald eagle was among the first hundred or so species to be protected.

When the population reached its recovery goal of 3,900 nesting pairs in 1999, then-President Bill Clinton proposed that the bald eagle be delisted. Today's announcement marks its official removal.

"That's something well worth celebrating," said Bob Irvin, senior vice president for conservation programs with the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife.

Despite the delisting, federal protection laws specifically for eagles and migratory birds will "still prohibit killing and harming eagles or their nests or eggs," the Audubon Society's Daulton noted.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also modernizing language under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act to make it relevant in today's world, according to Throckmorton.

"Originally it was written in 1940 and primarily it was a shooting statute," he said.

Dampened Celebration

The celebratory mood, however, is dampened in some quarters by a Supreme Court decision Monday that conservationists fear will curtail the reach of the Endangered Species Act.

Traditionally federal agencies must consider how projects such as dam building, forest logging, and subdivision construction will affect endangered species before issuing permits.

But in its recent 5-4 ruling, the court decided the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can transfer permitting authority to state agencies without first considering the welfare of endangered species. The ruling specifically affects permits issued under the Clean Water Act.

"The full effect of this decision remains to be seen, but we are very concerned," said Irvin of Defenders of Wildlife, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case.

The conservation advocacy group had sued EPA because the agency handed authority to the state of Arizona to issue permits under the Clean Water Act without endangered species consultations.

The Clean Water Act does not require such consultations before the EPA can transfer authority.

Irvin is concerned the Bush Administration will try to use the ruling to argue that other federal laws also trump the Endangered Species Act.

In a press statement, the National Association of Home Builders, a trade organization that represents developers, applauded the Supreme Court decision as maintaining balance when considering environmental regulations.

"We can't say that the Endangered Species Act is an 'uber-statute' that should slow down regulatory decisions," the builders association president Brian Catalde said.

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