Feds Ready To Designate Bald Eagles As "Recovered"

December 6, 2006

After more than 40 years of intense recovery efforts, the bald eagle is likely soon to be removed from the official list of endangered and threatened species. A court order has forced the US Fish and Wildlife Service to make its final decision no later than Feb. 16, 2007.

The agency says it plans to meet that deadline, and maybe even beat it by a few days or weeks, after pondering whether to delist the bird, and how to do so, since at least the late 1990s. In what may be the last act of this phase of the bald eagle saga, the agency asked for one more round of public comments, and has been digesting the responses since the comment period closed June 19, 2006 (USFWS Media: Valerie Fellows, 202-208-5634; biology, Jody Millar, 309-793-5800 x202; Bald Eagle page).

About 200 years ago, an estimated 100,000 nesting pairs of the US national symbol flew the country's skies. But the population plummeted to about 400 nesting pairs by 1963, due to extensive hunting, poisoning via lead shot used to hunt waterfowl, the ravages of toxic chemicals such as DDT, and other causes. Since 1967, the birds have been declared either endangered or threatened in the lower 48 states.

The count is now estimated to be a little over 7,000 nesting pairs. The birds have been found in every US state except HI and VT, and more than 100 pairs are living in each of 16 states (AK, CA, FL, IA, ID, LA, MD, ME, MI, MN, MT, OR, SC, VA, WA, WI; see link near bottom of this page for map of estimated populations, reflecting 1999 survey data and some updates from selected states. Comprehensive 2005 data likely will be included in final documents released in February 2007).

Though the current numbers are just 7% of the estimated former population, USFWS is concluding that the numbers are sufficient that the birds are no longer in danger of extinction, the main premise for determining whether a species should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

If delisted, the birds would still be protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and regulations in most states. But the agency acknowledges that overall protection will be reduced without an ESA listing. To guide future actions once the birds are delisted, the agency has developed a series of voluntary guidelines that were one of the focal points of the latest public comments.

However, the lawsuit that triggered the upcoming deadline raises the question of whether the bird's new status could leave it vulnerable. The suit was brought by a Minnesota developer who had been precluded from fully developing his property, due to the state's requirement for a buffer around an existing bald eagle nest. Under the proposed delisting conditions, such mandatory buffers would be replaced by voluntary provisions to protect nests and habitat.

To help the birds continue to recover, groups such as the American Eagle Foundation are leading efforts to fund additional research, land acquisition, and monitoring, along with cooperative efforts with private landowners (who are host to the majority of the remaining birds). AEF: Al Cecere, 800-232-4537, release.

USFWS will also continue to monitor the birds for at least five years, as required by the ESA, and can relist the birds if their survival is once again threatened.

Many environmental groups, such as Environmental Defense, support delisting, since other species are now in more dire need of help, and keeping bald eagles on the list forever, just in case they might not continue to recover, would be an indication the ESA can't work.

The National Wildlife Federation also supports delisting, since other regulations and the birds' current numbers provide a margin of safety, though the group will closely follow ongoing monitoring efforts. NWF: John Kostyack, 202-797-6879.

The American Farm Bureau Federation generally supports delisting, but says the agency's proposed definition of "disturb" was too vague, and might actually make things more difficult for farmers than an ESA listing, due to uncertainties in how the language could be interpreted. The Federation also wants more leeway built into the guidelines, allowing for case-by-case interpretations that might allow disturbances much closer than the current 330-foot mandatory buffer that is still discussed in the guidelines. In addition, the group would like to see some allowance for "incidental taking" of the birds, as allowed via other agreements such as Habitat Conservation Plans. The Federation's Rick Krause (202-406-3664) thinks the agency is modifying its delisting requirements in some way to address these concerns.

The National Association of Home Builders also supports delisting, and the expected elimination of many of the costs and time delays associated with a listed species.

For more on the ESA, and challenges to its current structure, see TipSheet of Aug. 3, 2005.