Ready to Test Their Wings?

Bald eagles perch on an ice floe in Homer, Alaska. The birds have never been threatened in that state and are thriving again in the lower 48.
Bald eagles perch on an ice floe in Homer, Alaska. The birds have never been threatened in that state and are thriving again in the lower 48. (By Heather Forcier -- Associated Press)
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Declaring victory in the decades-long effort to save the bald eagle from extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said yesterday it would revive a stalled effort to remove the majestic avian predator from the federal list of endangered and threatened species.

"The recovery of the bald eagle, our national symbol, is also a great national success story," agency director H. Dale Hall said in a statement.

The move comes amid a steady increase in the number of breeding pairs in North America. Several environmental groups have said they could support delisting the bald eagle as long as other protections remain in place and the government carefully monitors populations for years to come.

Environmental scientists took the opportunity yesterday, however, to warn against recent moves in Congress that they said would weaken provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

"Recovering an endangered species is not easy," said Doug Inkley, senior science adviser at the National Wildlife Federation. "It takes a long time and a lot of effort. But with appropriate laws and resources we can continue to achieve success."

When the first Europeans arrived in North America, an estimated 100,000 pairs of bald eagles populated the area that is now the lower 48 states. By 1963 that number had dropped to 417 pairs -- the result of widespread use of the eggshell-thinning insecticide DDT and rampant development in bird breeding areas.

Today the number of breeding pairs is estimated at 7,066, with the birds thriving in 49 states including Alaska, the one state in which they were never listed as threatened. (Bald eagles are not indigenous to Hawaii.)

In conjunction with its plan to delist the bald eagle, the wildlife service said it would propose voluntary guidelines and a new regulatory definition of the term "disturb" to help landowners and developers understand the protections that will still apply even after the birds are no longer listed as "threatened."

Those additional protections stem from two long-standing laws -- the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act -- that have specific provisions outlawing the killing or selling of bald eagles or the disturbing of the birds or their nests or eggs.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and director of the wildlife service under President Bill Clinton, said she was gratified to see that the newly proposed regulatory definition of "disturb" appears to encompass the full range of human activities that might have an impact on the birds' ability to reproduce.

But she and others said they would withhold final judgment on the new plan until they saw the language spelling out the government's "voluntary guidelines" that will help officials interpret the language in the other two eagle-protective laws.

A wildlife service spokesman said that language will not be available to the public until it is published in the Federal Register on Thursday.

The Fish and Wildlife Service first moved to delist bald eagles in 1999, but the effort stalled -- in part because of concerns about how to reconcile that step with the language that would remain in force under the other two laws.

A bill that would weaken the standards for designating endangered habitats -- a key element of the Endangered Species Act -- has passed the House under the leadership of Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), who chairs the Committee on Resources, which has jurisdiction over the act.

Several environmentalists warned the Senate yesterday against following suit, including Clark, who called it "a recipe for extinction."

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