Bald Eagle Back From The Brink

Citizen science is confirming the wisdom of an historic action that federal officials plan to formalize within days - removing the resurgent bald eagle from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The National Audubon Society says actual bald eagle sightings in the century-old Christmas Bird Count reveal that that the national bird's populations are continuing a steady climb in the lower 48 states, underscoring its amazing return from the brink.

"The rescue of the bald eagle from the brink of extinction ranks among the greatest victories of American conservation." said John Flicker, President of the National Audubon Society. "Like no other species, the bald eagle showed us all that environmental stewardship has priceless rewards. In every state, parents and grandparents can still point to the sky and share a moment of wonder as a bald eagle soars overhead."

The success is evident in the Audubon counts. Over a 40-year period from 1967 to 2006, bald eagle sightings have gone up nine-fold and increased an average of six percent per year every year. The top five states with the most dramatic increases were Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Vermont and Michigan, which all had at least a 13-fold increase over 40 years.

"Audubon's bird count data confirms that the bald eagle has recovered across America," says Greg Butcher, Audubon's Director of Bird Conservation. "Audubon's count shows that Americans are seeing the bald eagle's recovery beyond the numbers and the technical reports. They're seeing it in their skies."

A symbol of national strength and unity, the bald eagle has also become a parable for nature's unshakable ties to humans - for better or worse. Estimated to have numbered 100,000 in pre-colonial times, shooting, cutting of forests, and finally pesticides, took a toll on the bird, bringing it to the brink of extinction by the early 1960's. Strong federal and state protection and the banning of DDT brought the bird back from the brink. Very soon, the bald eagle is expected to soar off of the endangered and threatened list, assuming a new symbolic role as America's best conservation success.

"This is a victory worth celebrating -- and protecting," adds Flicker. "How fitting that our nation's symbol soars off the Endangered Species list as we prepare to celebrate America's independence."

RESURGENCE OF A NATIONAL ICON. Bald eagle populations declined dramatically in the last century, attributed mostly to the accumulation of the pesticide DDT in fish, a staple of the eagle's diet. The pesticides gradually poisoned females, causing them to produce thinly-shelled eggs that broke easily, preventing the embryos from growing. Years of hunting, accidental poisoning and habitat loss took an additional toll.

In 1960, Audubon took the lead in studying the eagle's declines through its' Continental Bald Eagle Project. The project revealed that DDT was in large part responsible for population declines among several raptor species including the bald eagle.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1967 listed the bald eagle as endangered, a designation that gave the bird legal protection from harmful human activities and in 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned most uses of DDT.

Listing the bald eagle afforded greater protection for important habitat, and saw the beginning of intensive monitoring and management of bald eagle populations in the wild as well as introduction of eagles from Alaska, Wisconsin, and other state to areas of the country where they had disappeared.

By the mid-90's, the eagle was well on the road to recovery and the FWS "downlisted" the bald eagle from endangered to threatened in most states under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Today, the FWS estimates there are over 7,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the continental United States.

The eagle's success is not a trend shared by bird populations nationwide. A recent analysis on common birds in decline conducted by Audubon found the average population of the common birds in steepest decline had fallen by 68 percent; and some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their populations in just four decades.

ONGOING CONTROVERSY. After delisting, the bald eagle will remain under federal protection largely through the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, as well as a patchwork of state laws. There is some controversy surrounding proposed Bush administration regulations regarding how easily permits would be issued allowing developers and other parties to disrupt bald eagle nests. Audubon will be advocating tighter regulations that would limit the ease with which these permits may be granted. In some areas, special protection may also be needed to protect distinct eagle populations.

In addition, the law that was instrumental in recovering the bald eagle, the Endangered Species Act, remains a target of pro-development interests and their allies in the Bush administration. The administration is expected to introduce regulations soon that would weaken the ESA's ability to protect species and their habitat. The effort follows years of attacks on the ESA prior to the change in Congressional leadership in 2007.

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