Eagles' Big Moment, Diverted by a Definition

Edward Clark of the Wildlife Center of Virginia releases a rehabilitated bald eagle last year at Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Bald eagles have been set to be taken off the endangered species list since 1999.
Edward Clark of the Wildlife Center of Virginia releases a rehabilitated bald eagle last year at Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Bald eagles have been set to be taken off the endangered species list since 1999. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007

What could be one of the proudest moments in U.S. conservation -- the removal of bald eagles from the threatened and endangered species list -- has been delayed again as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service struggles to define a single word: disturb.

If the regal bird is ever "delisted," as officials have promised, an eagle-protection statute from 1940 will be left to guide new development along the Potomac River and other places where eagles now thrive. That law makes it illegal to "disturb" an eagle.

But what does that mean? Annoy? Frighten? Injure? Kill? The national symbol, having overcome trophy hunting and DDT, now waits on a balky bureaucracy and a seven-letter verb.

"It turned out to be quite a complicated issue," said Paul Schmidt, Fish and Wildlife's assistant director for migratory birds.

The issue could have serious effects on development along the eagle-rich Potomac. Development projects and efforts to protect eagles have been in conflict here before, as in the 1999 furor when an employee at the National Harbor project in Prince George's County cut down a tree that apparently held a nest.

Now, environmentalists fear the government will settle on a narrow definition of "disturb" -- like one that prohibits only killing birds, injuring them or driving them from their nests. That, they say, would be difficult to enforce and would allow developers to encroach ever more closely on eagle havens such as Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Fairfax County.

"There'll be a lot more building, a lot more development activity, a lot closer to bald eagle nests than there were here before," said Michael Bean of the group Environmental Defense.

The eagles nearly disappeared from the continental United States, thanks to hunting in the 19th century and the eggshell-weakening pesticide DDT in the 20th century. By 1963, only 417 breeding pairs were left.

But then came a ban on DDT and new protections for the eagle, named an endangered species in 1967. The bird was upgraded to "threatened" in 1995, and today there are more than 7,000 pairs in the lower 48 states.

To crown the eagle's comeback, the president announced it would be formally removed from the list.

President Clinton said that. In 1999.

After years of delays, in December an official in the current administration renewed the pledge. "By Feb. 16, the bald eagle will be delisted," he said.


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