An impressive predator, the bald eagle has a wing span of seven feet or more, and deadly talons that can easily impale and grab large prey such as game fish, raccoons, or rabbits. Centuries ago, there were probably as many as a half a million bald eagles in North America. In 1782, the first Continental Congress put the bird onto the official seal of the United States. Its status as the symbol of America was held in high regard during the first century of its reign on the official seal.
But by the late 1800s, many people considered the bald eagle to be a scavenger and dangerous nuisance, so the bird was shot from airplanes, poisoned, hunted for its feathers and talons, and killed and fed to hogs. In Alaska, hunters were paid fifty cents for each bald eagle they killed.
In 1940, Congress passed a law making it a crime to kill a bald eagle. But the law, which still exists, wasn't enough to prevent the decline in their population. Around the same time, the insecticide DDT began to be widely used by farmers and communities to control mosquitoes. DDT was sprayed liberally on crops and in rural areas, as well as in urban areas, and it eventually drained into lakes and streams. Fish, the favorite food of eagles, absorbed the poisonous insecticide, and as a result, DDT resulted in the deaths of adult birds and their eggs.
In 1963, the United States Department of the Interior documented only 417 mating pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States. DDT was banned in 1972, and in 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was drafted, our national symbol was one of the first creatures to be put on the list of protected species. In the decades since, wildlife researchers and conservationists have actively struggled to prevent the extinction of the majestic bird.
In the past four decades, the bald eagle population has steadily risen, and recent accountings by government biologists have estimated that there are nearly 10,000 mating pairs in the United States, with at least one pair in each of the 48 continuous states. The bird's survival is no longer in jeopardy, so it is being removed from the Endangered Species list.
Its declassification as a protected species was spurred along by a lawsuit by a Minnesota man who claimed that the government's delays in deciding on the bird's status was preventing him from being able to develop seven acres of land that was home to a bald eagle's nest. The Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented the developer, said that the government's decision to remove the eagle from the protected species list is 'a victory for property owners', but there is concern that another law might be enacted that would still be too restrictive.
Conservationists point to the recovery of the bald eagle population as a clear indicator that the Endangered Species Act is a success, despite the law being constantly attacked by property owners and business rights groups. John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation called the recovery of the bald eagle "truly one of America's great wildlife success stories" that shows the federal law is needed and can work. Environmentalist fear that any changes in implementing the law might make it harder to enforce for other plants and animals, especially since no other species enjoys the symbolism of the bald eagle.
George Wallace, chief conservation officer for the American Bird Conservancy, said that he saw his first bald eagle when he was in high school, and it was a rare and beautiful sight. "Seeing a bald eagle in the mid '70s was a big deal," he said. "It was something you really looked forward to seeing. Now, to be honest, bald eagles are pretty common."