Saturday, June 02, 2007

New Rules for Bald Eagles

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has clarified the regulations that would protect bald eagles if they lose protection under the Endangered Species Act. In recent decades bald eagles have rebounded from a low of 417 pairs to over 9,800 today. The steady increase in the eagle population has led to pressure to declare eagles recovered. Last year a court ruled that the Service must decide whether bald eagles will remain on the endangered species list by June 29, 2007.

If bald eagles are de-listed, they would fall under the protection of other statutes, the most important of which is the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 (pdf). That law forbids the taking, possession, transportation, selling, and purchasing of eagles, parts of eagles, nests, or eggs. "Take" is defined in the law as "pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb."

A key point of disagreement was how best to interpret "disturb" under the Eagle Protection Act. Last year, a draft regulation was strongly criticized for defining "disturb" too narrowly. A major weakness of the 1940 law is that it does not include explicit habitat protections, so there was concern that nest and roost sites be included in the new regulations. After a public comment period and further consultation, the Fish and Wildlife Service has released a new definition (pdf) of "disturb":

Disturb means to agitate or bother a bald or golden eagle to a degree that causes, or is likely to cause, based on the best scientific information available, 1) injury to an eagle, 2) a decrease in its productivity, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior, or 3) nest abandonment, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior.
In addition to the new definition of "disturb," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a new rule allowing limited takes of bald and golden eagles under a permit program (pdf). Takes would be permissible under some circumstances when they are incidental to other legal activities, or when the location of an eagle nest poses a hazard to humans or eagles (like near an airport runway). The permit system would function in a manner similar to takes under the Endangered Species Act, and would give the Fish and Wildlife Service a chance to work with landowners to minimize impact. A public comment period on the permit program will open on June 5.

More information about the new regulations can be found at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website on bald eagles.