Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bald Eagles No Longer Endangered

As expected, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to remove the bald eagle from the Endangered Species List. The announcement caps a four-decade recovery effort. The bald eagle population - like that of other raptors - crashed in the 1950s and 1960s. The main culprit turned out to widespread agricultural use of DDT, which thinned egg shells and caused nesting attempts to fail. (Eagles also suffered from lead poisoning and were persecuted as pests until the mid-twentieth century.) After the general use of DDT was banned in 1972, the bald eagle population gradually recovered through an active program of habitat conservation and introduction of captive-bred birds into the wild. The bald eagle's designation was changed from "endangered" to "threatened" in 1995, and federal biologists determined that the species had recovered by 1999.

Twenty other species have been removed from the list after completing recovery programs. The bald eagle's recovery has been most prominent and most dramatic. Only 417 pairs existed in the lower 48 states in 1963; now there may be over 11,000 breeding pairs in the continental United States. Each of the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia now have at least one breeding pair.

Though no longer endangered, the bald eagle will still be protected under older federal laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act on 1918 and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940. In preparation for delisting the bald eagle, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued new regulations under the Eagle Protection Act to protect eagle nesting sites. The rules define "disturb" as any action that is likely to injure an eagle or interfere with its nesting or feeding. The Service will also begin a permit program to allow limited incidental takes of eagles. While the Eagle Protection Act and the revised regulations do not explicitly protect habitat, they provide a way for federal biologists to work with landowners to minimize any harmful effects of land use on bald eagles. Federal biologists will continue to monitor the bald eagle population for the next five years to evaluate its stability without the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

The conservative legal group and landowner that sued to force a decision on the bald eagle's status is already threatening an additional lawsuit to challenge the Fish and Wildlife Service's definition of "disturb." The landowner, Edmund Contoski of Minnesota, seems determined to develop a seven-acre property and is spoiling for additional fights. (Contoski is an ideological libertarian who refuses to wear a seatbelt simply because a law requires it.) Given the promised challenge, and the likelihood of other challenges, perhaps Congress should amend the Eagle Protection Act to include the new definition.

Given adequate resources and active conservation, an endangered species can recover and thrive, as bald eagles have. Unfortunately, many less prominent (or less sexy) species remain on the Endangered Species List. Many listed species lack recovery plans or critical habitat designations. Of the 1314 species on the list, only 1078 have recovery plans and 468 have designated critical habitat. In addition, there are species like the cerulean warbler and red knot that have not been listed though they are in critical need of assistance. The Audubon Society recently reminded us that many other bird species, though not under threat of extinction, are declining rapidly. Active conservation and proper funding are necessary to ensure that these species, too, have the opportunity to make a full recovery.