The Bald Eagle and the Endangered Species Act—an American Success Story

This month marks the 11th anniversary of the Bald Eagle’s removal from the Endangered Species List.

Sarah Greenberger is the senior vice president of conservation policy for the National Audubon Society. 

Forty years ago, our nation’s symbol, the Bald Eagle, was on the brink of extinction and its population plummeted to an all-time low of 417 breeding pairs, in large part due to the effects of the pesticide DDT. The Bald Eagle became one of the first species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it was passed with broad bipartisan support and signed into law in 1973 by President Nixon. 

The ESA is our nation’s most powerful tool for protecting wildlife. Protections provided by the Act have succeeded in preventing the extinction of 99 percent of the species listed, and benefitted many others that depend on the landscapes it’s helped to protect. 

Today the law currently protects about 100 U.S. bird species, including the Whooping Crane, Piping Plover, and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The law prohibits harm to listed species, designates “critical habitat,” and requires a recovery plan with population goals and specific management activities. The ESA has also served as an important tool for incentivizing large-scale conservation efforts, such as with the Greater Sage-Grouse.  Beyond the Bald Eagle, the ESA has helped numerous bird species, including the Brown Pelican and Peregrine Falcon, to recover and be delisted, and set many other species on the path to recovery.

And yet, despite the law’s stellar track record and widespread popularity, there are concerted efforts to weaken it—from a suite of bills in the U.S. House to proposed regulations by the administration. The most important measure of any proposed change to a bedrock environmental law, however, is whether it enhances science-based decision-making as well as air, water, or wildlife conservation. By this measure, the net impact of both congressional and administrative proposals fails to meet these standards.

Key provisions put forward by the administration and in legislative proposals fail to address the needs of imperiled birds and would undermine the ESA’s purpose and effectiveness.

Some of the most concerning proposals would:  

  • remove automatic protections for species that are newly listed as “threatened,”
  • allow publication and analyses of economic impacts that distract and detract from the law’s dependence on science,
  • make it harder to designate unoccupied habitat as “critical habitat” and easier to avoid designating “critical habitat” at all. 

In addition, some of the proposals in Congress would take these potential rollbacks further by changing the statute itself to rush de-listings, limit science-based decisions, and reduce citizen involvement. These and other changes would tip the balance in decision-making against protection rather than for it, and undermine key incentives for proactive and collaborative conservation.

At Audubon we agree that there are opportunities to simplify ESA practices in a manner that would achieve better and faster conservation outcomes. We’ve participated in a thoughtful, bipartisan process led by Governor Mead of Wyoming through the Western Governors Association to identify some of those solutions. We see some possibility to help achieve that goal in a few of the administration’s proposals, mainly by clarifying the information needed to complete consultations between federal agencies on the impact of certain projects on listed species. But these pieces are outweighed by others that would chip away at vital protections that undermine the ESA and its ability to serve as a lifeline for birds.

Instead of weakening protections, Congress and the administration should provide more resources for species recovery, including for habitat conservation, to support the kind of proactive, collaborative, and local conservation efforts that are changing the paradigm for species conservation around the country. That is why Audubon supports proposals like the bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act that would provide $1.3 billion a year for at-risk species, revolutionizing our nation’s ability to successfully protect birds and other wildlife. By the time many species are listed, their populations have fallen dramatically, making it much more difficult to maintain and increase their numbers. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

We celebrate the Bald Eagle, whose dramatic comeback was possible because of a strong ESA, based on a widespread agreement that we have a moral obligation to meet the needs of today in a manner that ensures our children and grandchildren experience the same wonder in wildlife that we do. To that end, we will soon be submitting our comments to federal agencies as part of the rulemaking process to let them know what birds need and what the people who care about them want: a well-funded ESA, centered on science, that is implemented to maximize incentives for collaborative and proactive conservation, and with robust protections for imperiled species and the places they need to survive. 

In the meantime, please ask Congress to uphold the ESA and oppose efforts that would undermine protections for birds and other wildlife.