By Deborah Bailin
No bird is more iconic to Americans’ sense of national identity and pride than the bald eagle. This majestic creature was chosen by the Continental Congress in 1782 to symbolize the United States because of its strength and longevity. A bird that lives on the tops of mountains and swoops through boundless spaces, it appears on the Great Seal of the United States and represents the freedom the Founding Fathers saw at the heart of our democracy.
Yet less than 200 later, nesting pairs of bald eagles had dropped from the several hundred thousand thought to be alive during the Revolutionary Era to just 480 by the 1960s. Many factors played a role: illegal shooting, oil and lead poisoning, habitat destruction. But above all, indiscriminate use of the insecticide DDT after World War II dramatically reduced the bald eagle population and threatened this magnificent species that inspired our national emblem.
While DDT did not kill living eagles, it interfered with their ability to reproduce. Many females became sterile, and many others that weren’t sterile laid eggs with shells too thin to support the weight of nesting adults. Although DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972 and the birds were protected by several laws, including the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, they would not be able to rebuild their population until DDT had been eliminated from their food chain. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and by 1978, the bald eagle was listed as either threatened or endangered throughout its territory in the United States.
Fortunately, although it’s been a long and difficult recovery, the bald eagle has made a comeback. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the species, and by 2012 nesting pairs were numbering around 14,000.
It is important, however, not to define the success of the ESA only by those species, like the bald eagle, that have been delisted but also by the many, many other species that have made significant progress—and continue to progress—towards their recovery goals. A new report by the Endangered Species Coalition (ESC), of which UCS is a member, explains that success is a long-term and often challenging process but a process with many milestones worth celebrating along the way. More....