The American bald eagle, revered and reviled over more than two centuries, today will be officially declared safe from extinction in the lower 48 states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which led a four-decade effort to resuscitate the national bird, is taking it off the Endangered Species list.
The majestic raptor had declined from half a million nesting pairs at the time of European settlement to 417 in 1963. By last year, it had rebounded to 9,789 pairs, and an estimated 11,040 today. In California, where bald eagles have been reintroduced to the Channel Islands and elsewhere, more than 200 pairs are breeding.
"It is an astounding recovery," said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based advocacy group. "It attests to a dramatic change in the American environmental ethic."
Nonetheless, it has been a roller-coaster flight. In 1782, the Continental Congress made the bald eagle the national emblem, with its image on the Great Seal of the United States, clutching arrows and an olive branch.
But as the U.S. population grew, ranchers and farmers came to view bald eagles as nuisance predators, despite the fact that the bird is mostly a fish-eater. They were routinely shot and driven from their nesting grounds by logging, farming and homebuilding. By the 1950s, the spread of the pesticide DDT, which thins the eagle's eggshells, had led to a catastrophic decline.
The comeback began with a 1972 ban on DDT and stringent protections under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Since then, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on eagle recovery efforts by federal, state, and nonprofit groups. In 1995, the bald eagle was reclassified from "endangered" to the less-severe "threatened" status.
Alaska's bald eagles, which number 25,000, are not endangered. Hawaii has none.
"It wasn't just money," said David Garcelon, president of the Arcata, Calif.-based Institute for Wildlife Studies. "People put huge amounts of effort into it. It would have been pretty sad to see our national symbol blink out."
Such an effort took place on the Channel Islands, where scientists began to reintroduce bald eagles in 1980. But the birds were unable to reproduce after consuming fish contaminated by DDT, which had been discharged off the Palos Verdes Peninsula by Montrose Chemical Co. in the 1950s and '60s. Their eggshells were so thin that nesting birds would crush them.
So Garcelon began helicoptering into the nests, dangling from a 100-foot cable, rescuing the fragile eggs and substituting them with fake ones. The eggs were incubated in a lab, and chicks were returned to the nest as soon as they hatched.
Today, more than 40 eagles live on the islands, soaring with their 7-foot wing spans over passing sailboats. And in the last two years, six chicks hatched naturally on Santa Cruz and Santa Catalina islands -- the first time in more than half a century.
Although controversy over the Endangered Species Act has focused on less charismatic wildlife, such as snail darters and delta smelt, eagles have run into headwinds too. Last year, a federal judge halted a plan to build a condominium complex at Big Bear Lake where 14 bald eagles make a seasonal home. And the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights advocacy group, is threatening to challenge new rules that would prevent a Minnesota retiree from subdividing his land because of the presence of bald eagles.
The move to delist of the bald eagle was first announced by President Clinton in 1999. But the delisting was delayed until now because states where the eagle was not recovering as quickly objected strenuously to removing protections. The distribution of nesting pairs remains uneven, ranging from a high of 1,312 in Minnesota to only a single pair each in Vermont, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia.
In Arizona, the nation's fastest growing state, conservationists filed suit in January to prevent the delisting of its desert-nesting bald eagles. And Tuesday, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano wrote U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne opposing the removal, saying that Indian tribes, which use eagle feathers in religious ceremonies, were not adequately consulted.
Nationally, scientists have expressed fears that eagle populations could crash if restrictions on building in habitat are lifted.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will continue to monitor nesting populations. And this month, under a 1940 law, now called the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the agency adopted rules forbidding landowners from interfering with eagles' "normal breeding, feeding or sheltering behavior."
The purpose, according to the agency, is to "ensure an almost seamless transition" from the Endangered Species Act to the eagle act.
Given those new rules, a Pacific Legal Foundation spokesman contended, the eagle's "departure from the Endangered Species list [is] more symbolic than substantive."