Eagles' Comeback on Brink of Being Official

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

The federal government appears poised today to remove the bald eagle from its list of threatened and endangered species, capping a 40-year comeback for the national icon that showed that disappearing creatures are not always lost.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has scheduled a "major announcement" about the eagle's status this morning at the Jefferson Memorial. No details were available, but environmental advocates said the intent was clear: For months, wildlife service officials have been making legal preparations for taking bald eagles off the protected list.

If the species is removed, it will provide a legal postscript to a rebound that is obvious to bird-watchers across the country, especially along the eagle-rich Potomac River. There were 417 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the continental United States in 1967, after a decline blamed partly on the eggshell-thinning pesticide DDT. Forty years later, officials say, that number has grown to about 10,000 pairs.

"It's really one of the greatest conservation success stories in U.S. history," said Tony Iallonardo, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society.

Removing the bird from the roll of threatened species, a process referred to as "delisting," isn't likely to mean a new hunting season for bald eagles. Instead, the birds will probably enjoy most of the protections they do now under policies the Fish and Wildlife Service recently outlined. Those include federal prohibitions on killing or wounding them and disturbing their nests.

That has pleased many environmental groups, who say they think the birds will continue to thrive. But the new rules have been criticized by the National Association of Home Builders, which has said they could prove too vague to guide contractors working near eagle nests.

And the rules seem likely to provoke a new lawsuit from Edmund Contoski, a Minnesota landowner who says his plans to build houses on a cul-de-sac have been held up by an eagle nest on the land. In 2005, Contoski filed suit to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision about whether to delist the bird. He won the case: A judge gave the government a deadline of tomorrow.

But Contoski said this week that he didn't sue just to have the same regulations put in place under a new name.

"They're taking all the value of my property . . . and paying me nothing," Contoski said in a telephone interview. He added: "I kind of expect we're going to have to have another lawsuit. And if we have to, we will."

One thing neither side disputes: The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, no longer deserves to be on the same list as more than 560 other endangered and threatened U.S. animal species. The eagle's status, which began as "endangered" in 1967, was upgraded to "threatened" in 1995.

The bird's comeback is credited to a series of policy changes, beginning with a 1940 law that banned killing or wounding the birds. Before that, the national symbol had been hunted or poisoned in large numbers, often for bounties offered in state-sponsored programs aimed at reducing predators.

Soon, public perception of the birds began to shift, "from fear and loathing to respect and awe," said Jody Millar, who oversees national bald-eagle monitoring for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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