More Than a Symbolic Victory
Status: Threatened, awaiting removal from list
Year declared endangered: 1940
Lowest count in lower 48 states: 417 nesting pairs
In 1782, the Second Continental Congress incorporated the bald eagle into the first great seal of the United States as a symbol of “supreme power and authority.” Unlike the king’s England, where wildlife was the exclusive property of royalty, in this new nation wild animals belonged to all the people.
By the 1930s, the national symbol was in trouble. Bald eagles, once soaring over most of the country by the hundreds of thousands, had plummeted in number to an estimated 10,000 pairs by the 1950s. Hunting, land clearing and accidental poisoning (eagles often ate toxic meat set out by ranchers to kill wolves and other predators) contributed to the decline. In 1940, Congress jumped to the fore with the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which acknowledged the scientific and political reasons to conserve the distinctive whiteheaded bird with a seven-foot wingspan. “The bald eagle is no longer a mere bird of biological interest but a symbol of the American ideals of freedom,” the law states. It prohibited the killing of bald eagles for virtually any reason.
But the introduction of DDT in 1945 dealt the animal a critical blow. The pesticide, sprayed far and wide to eradicate mosquitoes and agricultural pests, crept into the food chain. Fish ate exposed bugs, eagles and other birds ate pesticidelaced fish, and the DDT ingested by the birds so thinned their eggshells that chicks couldn’t survive. By 1963, only 417 bald eagle nesting pairs were found in the lower 48.
In 1972, ten years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring publicized the insidious threat of DDT, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the pesticide. Still, the hunting and chemical regulations would not have been enough to revive the bald eagle. The passage of the ESA provided critical help by protecting the bird’s habitat. Other federal laws would also contribute. Efforts to decontaminate the Chesapeake Bay, prompted by the Clean Water Act, benefited the eagle by slowly reducing harmful pollutants from prime bald eagle feeding grounds.
Widespread affection for the emblematic bird also made a difference. Eagle lovers monitored nests, educated the public and campaigned to close nesting areas during the breeding season. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) banned hunters from using lead shot nationwide, which can poison eagles and other raptors that scavenge waterfowl that have been struck by the shot. Meanwhile, the eagle itself adapted to living near people—even setting up nests a few miles from the U.S. Capitol.
In 1995, wildlife authorities changed the bald eagle’s status from endangered to threatened, an important moment in conservation history. Today, with about 7,678 pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48, the bird awaits a final OK to be taken off the ESA’s threatened list, a move that many anticipate will come quickly. “People want success,” says Jody Millar, Bald Eagle Monitoring Coordinator for the FWS, in Rock Island, Illinois. She says that the recovery of the beloved national symbol has generated public acceptance of conservation measures. “No government can protect a species if the public doesn’t want it.”