ANNAPOLIS, JULY 24 -- The recovery of the bald eagle, the nation's majestic white-headed symbol, is so impressive in the Chesapeake region and elsewhere that some wildlife officials are suggesting that it may be time to upgrade their status from "endangered" to "threatened."

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources said this week that there are more bald eagles nesting in the woods around the Chesapeake Bay than at any time since the agency began its eagle surveys in 1977.

"This is news which should make environmentalists very happy," said Glenn Therres, supervisor of the Non-game and Urban Wildlife Program for the department's Forest, Park and Wildlife Service. "Here was a species that was in serious jeopardy, and through a combination of efforts is now making a substantial comeback."

The bald eagle, nearly wiped out by the pesticide DDT after World War II, was placed on the nation's endangered species list in 1967. In 1972, DDT was banned. The number of eagles slowly began to rise.

Therres said the statewide number of "nesting pairs" of the birds, which mate for life, has grown from 41 in 1977 to 123 today. Nationwide, the National Audubon Society counted 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963, though the study was not comprehensive. In 1989, there were at least 2,660 nesting pairs in the lower 48.

The Chesapeake Bay region has met its bald eagle goals for several years, and that is prompting some to suggest the species be listed as "threatened" rather than "endangered."

Dan James, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said changing the eagles' listing would be a good idea.

"This would heighten people's awareness that the eagle is recovering, but there is still more to be done," James said. "It would also cast the endangered species program in a more favorable light on Capitol Hill and in the public eye since it will demonstrate that even though the job is not complete, with resources we can effect the recovery of certain species."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by late this year or early next year whether to recommend upgrading the eagles' status.

James said the banning of DDT, which weakened the eggshell surrounding the eagle young, was the most important factor in protecting the eagle. Also significant was educating the public not to shoot the birds and passing legislation to protect their habitats.

Keeping chunks of the Chesapeake Bay shoreline free from development will be the most important task in the years ahead, Therres said.

"Working with developers is going to become more and more important if we are going to protect the eagles," he said. "We won't be able to develop all the shoreline if we want to keep the eagles around."