The story of the bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is a story of abundance, hardship and triumph. In the tradition of great American stories, the bald eagle is truly the Comeback Kid of American wildlife. In 1782, the year the United States adopted the bald eagle as its national symbol, there were approximately 500,000 bald eagles living in North America.
The bald eagle
The story of the bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is a story of abundance, hardship and triumph. In the tradition of great American stories, the bald eagle is truly the Comeback Kid of American wildlife. In 1782, the year the United States adopted the bald eagle as its national symbol, there were approximately 500,000 bald eagles living in North America. At this time, quiet isolation grew on trees, old growth forests were abundant, and clean waterways were aplenty. Life for bald eagles was cake.
Into every sunny day, some rain must fall. Times were changing. Even though the new Americans honored the eagle as a symbol of themselves, they expected these birds to share. Along with westward expansion came humans, axes, farms and guns. Used to a diet of fish, carrion, waterfowl and small mammals, privately owned livestock seemed a natural extension of their carnivorous lifestyle. Farmers and ranchers failed to see it that way, and Benjamin Franklin seemed to have gotten it right. The bald eagle was indeed a bird of “bad moral character.”
The first decline of bald eagle populations occurred around the mid- to late-1800s. Eagle feathers became the prize of early consumers, and stuffed eagle carcasses could brighten any abode. Old growth trees soon became cozy log cabins, and farmers protected their property with guns when necessary.
In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty provided protections to bald eagles under its prohibition of the taking, killing or possession of migratory birds. In this treaty, the word “take” is significant due to the extensiveness of its definition, and it’s proof that lawyers suffered no endangerment during this time. The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty defined “take” as, “pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb.”
As the decades passed and more settlers moved across the continent, fewer national birds were still alive to be displaced from forest clearings. It seemed prudent to pass an act that specifically protected the bald eagle. The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibited the taking, possession and commerce of bald eagles.
Apparently, neither the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty nor the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act did the job of protecting bald eagles, and populations continued to decline. In 1962, the Bald Eagle Protection Act was modified to include protections for golden eagles and thus became the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA). By 1963, the nationwide population of bald eagles was recorded at a mere 417 nesting pairs, but it was not until four years later that the species was officially classified as endangered and then only south of 40 degrees north latitude.
In the early 1940s the chemical pesticide DDT began soaking into the American landscape. DDT was specifically harmful to bald eagles because it interfered with the calcification process necessary for the production of viable eggshells. Contaminated eagles still laid eggs, but the shells lacked the necessary hardening property to house young eaglets until they could hatch. Not only was this a sad state of affairs, but it caused bird populations to plummet faster than a lusty eagle on the make. DDT was found to be harmful to practically everything else alive, so on a bright and shiny day in 1972, it was banned (for most purposes).
In 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed to “provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species depend may be conserved, and to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered and threatened species.” The ESA, an act with teeth, provided for the “listing, protection and recovery of imperiled species.” Wildlife biologists began striking out into the field to discover the kinds of conditions necessary to grow strong, healthy eagles. If eagles needed quiet solitude, old growth trees, clean water and some peace and quiet (all of which they did), then that’s what they got. Bald eagle nests received real protections similar to a big “Do Not Disturb” sign young lovers might hang outside their honeymoon suite.
After nearly 67 years of officially protecting the bald eagle, after more than half a century of depravation and restraint, after over 30 years of not running the lawn mower, not building the high rise, not constructing the road, of basically keeping out of the sight and mind of the great American bald eagle, the population recovered to a whopping 7,066 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Approximately 40,000 eagles inhabit Alaska and this begins to beg the question: When can we start shooting?
At the very least, there was an expectation that land use laws might change once a lawsuit was filed and won against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hopes were high when a court mandated the delisting of the bald eagle from the Endangered Species Act by Feb. 16, 2007. However, due to concerns over how bald eagle populations would be managed after delisting, an extension was granted until June 29, 2007.
Regardless of their coverage under the Endangered Species Act, bald eagles will continue to be protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act. Although DDT is no longer a concern for the survival of the bald eagle, habitat destruction is. The crux of the issue seems to rest on the semantics of the term “disturb.” Once a consensus on this definition is reached, it seems certain that the great American bald eagle will fly off on his own, released perhaps from the real protections of the Endangered Species Act. One can only hope the honeymoon isn’t over.