The American bald eagle, once nearly extinct, has made a remarkable comeback. The U.S. government on Thursday confirmed that by taking the revered bird off the federal list of protected species.
"Today I am proud to announce: the eagle has returned," Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said a day before a court-directed deadline to decide the eagle's status. "From this point forward, we will work to ensure that the eagle never again needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act."
Conservation groups were ecstatic. “It is a man-on-the-moon moment for wildlife,” said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. He credited the 1973 Endangered Species Act for saving the bird.
Conservationists have hailed the successful recovery of the eagle as clear evidence that the Endangered Species Act, which has been under attack in recent years from business groups and some members of Congress, can work.
“This is a great conservation success story, one that shows the Endangered Species Act really works,” said Michael Daulton of the National Audubon Society. “In addition to being our national symbol, the bald eagle is now a symbol of environmental stewardship as well.”
Around Washington, D.C., the bald eagle appears on the Great Seal of the United States, as well as official seals at the White House, Pentagon and State Department, in a marble sculpture at the Federal Reserve, as a mascot for the Washington Nationals baseball team and on U.S. coins and paper money.
Nearly 10,000 nesting pairs in lower 48
Government biologists have documented nearly 10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles, including at least one pair in each of the 48 contiguous states. This compares to only 417 such pairs in 1963 when the bird was on the verge of disappearing everywhere in the country except for Alaska.
While no longer declared endangered or threatened, the bald eagle will continue to be protected by a 1940 federal law that will make it illegal to kill the bird — as well as state statutes.
Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service also is preparing guidelines for protecting the bird's nesting habitat under the 1940 law and developing a permitting process that landowners will have to use if eagles are found on property they want to develop.
Native to most of North America, bald eagles are now present in 49 states. They were never endangered or threatened in Alaska and are still present there; they are not tropical birds and never were present in Hawaii.
Despite its status as the country's national symbol, the bald eagle over the years has been abused and maligned as a scavenger and dangerous predator. Tens of thousands of the birds were killed by hunters over the years.
Ben Franklin wasn't a fan
The bird's depiction on the U.S. Great Seal gained the bald eagle unofficial recognition as the national bird on June 20, 1782, over the objections of Benjamin Franklin, who said it had a ”bad moral character” — he preferred the turkey. The bald eagle became the official national bird in 1789.
The bald eagle's decline accelerated when it became the victim of DDT, the insecticide widely used after World War II on plants to control mosquitoes. DDT persists in the food chain and had the effect of thinning the birds’ eggshells, making them so fragile that they cracked when eagles were incubating them.
The bird was listed as endangered in 1967, six years before the Endangered Species Act became law. When DDT was banned in 1972, the eagle's recovery began.
From 1967 to 2006, bald eagle sightings increased nine-fold, with the most dramatic increases in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Vermont and Michigan, according to the National Audubon Society.
The bird’s status was changed to threatened in 1995, a less severe listing than endangered. And in 1999, the Interior Department said the eagle's recovery had been a success, but that it would be another eight years before the decision would become official — culminating in the Thursday's ceremony.