The comeback of the bald eagle, our national bird, is one of the great success stories of an American ethic of environmental protection that took root three decades ago. From barely 400 breeding pairs clinging to survival in the contiguous 48 states in 1963, the eagle population has climbed to about 5,000 breeding pairs.
The eagle protection plan has been so successful that Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has taken action to remove the bird from the roster of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It was taken off the endangered list, which provides tougher protections, four years ago. When Babbitt's latest action becomes final, the eagle will once again be soaring on its own.
The success of the eagle cannot be attributed entirely to the Endangered Species Act. A key to the bird's survival was the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972. Scientists had discovered that ingestion of the chemical by female eagles weakened the shells of their eggs and made reproduction almost impossible. Rachel Carson's landmark 1962 book "Silent Spring" was a major force behind the DDT ban, a boon for a number of species.
Today, the Endangered Species Act is under attack by farmers, developers and other landowners who argue that the government uses the law to take their land illegally without compensation. In some instances, environmental groups have sought a toughening of the law. Babbitt proposes a compromise that would give property owners greater flexibility in the use of their land in exchange for alternative habitat where the species in question could be protected. Such a program, known in California as Natural Community Conservation Planning, now covers an estimated 1 million acres in Southern California, the result of joint efforts by state, federal and local governments. Gov. Pete Wilson has budgeted $20.6 million to carry this program in 1998-99.
Few would argue with the saving of the bald eagle. As Babbitt noted, "it evokes a special response in the American people." Opponents of the law, however, ridicule protection for such low-profile creatures as the gnatcatcher and the kangaroo rat.
But each species has its own role in the natural community. Who would decide which is expendable?