Bald eagle makes a come-back

By John Heilprin The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The American bald eagle, after battling back from the threat of extinction because of habitat loss and DDT, took another step yesterday toward coming off the endangered species list.

The Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service issued draft voluntary guidelines spelling out how landowners, land managers and others should protect the bird once it no longer is safeguarded by the 1973 law.

It also proposed prohibitions on “disturbing” the bald eagle, which could include anything that would disrupt its breeding, feeding or sheltering or cause injury, death or nest abandonment.

The Clinton administration proposed removing the bald eagle from the endangered species list in 1999. But the delisting has taken far longer than the typical year, partly because updated counts are required from each of the states, and some of those have their own rules that add to red tape.

Officials said yesterday’s action could lead to the bald eagle coming off the endangered species within the next year or so.

“Should the eagle be delisted, we expect that the public will notice little change in how eagles are managed and protected,” said H. Dale Hall, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s director.

He said at least 7,066 known nesting pairs now exist in the contiguous United States. The bald eagle’s territory stretches over much of the North American continent. Tens of thousands more live in Alaska and Canada, where their existence never was imperiled.

However, 43 years ago, there were just 417 known nesting pairs left in the lower 48 states, mainly because of the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides that weakened the bald eagle’s eggshells and reduced its birth rate. The brown-bodied bird with the distinctive white head and tail also suffered from lead poisoning – eating waterfowl pierced by a hunter’s lead shot.

So in 1967, under a law that preceded the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the fierce raptor was officially declared an endangered species in the lower 48. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT for most uses.

In 1978, Fish and Wildlife officials listed the bald eagle as endangered in 43 states and threatened in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. The government hatched detailed recovery plans, with specific population and reproduction goals. Sometimes eggs were imported from Canada and installed at artificial eyries.

By 1995, the species had rebounded enough to be reclassified as threatened throughout the lower 48.

If and when the bald eagle is removed entirely from the endangered list, two other laws will continue to protect it: the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act, later revised to include the golden eagle.