Bald eagle reviving

June 29, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Our national symbol is back from the brink -- though still scarred by three centuries of abuse.

Twenty-seven years after officially being declared in danger of extinction, the spunky bald eagle has recovered enough from pollution, shooting and destruction of habitat to be taken off the critical list.

The move by the federal government comes just in time for the Fourth of July. And part of the Chesapeake Bay's soaring eagle )) population will be used as a prop.

Mollie Beattie, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge tomorrow to announce plans to upgrade from "endangered" to "threatened" the bird's status across most of the nation.

The wildlife service still must hold hearings on the change but is expected to formalize it next year.

The upgrading is largely symbolic. The bird will still be federally protected from anyone taking a potshot at it, or bulldozing its nesting trees.

But the eagle's revival is hailed as a monumental achievement.

"There are more bald eagles today than there have been in many decades in this region and across the United States. The success is real," said Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, which tends sick and injured eagles.

From a population estimated at 25,000 or more when the nation's founders chose it as our national symbol, the bald eagle lost habitat as waterfront land was cleared, was hunted relentlessly and suffered from contamination of food sources by the pesticide DDT.

By the early 1960s, fewer than 450 nesting pairs of eagles remained in the lower 48 states. The Chesapeake Bay, an important eagle nesting area, saw similarly drastic declines, from 3,000 pairs to fewer than 100 in 1970.

Now there are more than 4,000 adult nesting pairs in the continental United States and more than 300 in the Chesapeake Bay region. In Maryland, the eagle population has rebounded from a low of 41 nesting pairs in 1977 to 154 pairs last year, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Those increases -- and evidence of improved reproduction -- are enough to warrant upgrading the bird, which is classified endangered in 43 of the lower 48 states and threatened in the rest.

(There are about 40,000 eagles in Alaska, where they are not considered endangered, and none in Hawaii.)

The only exception to the reclassification would be the Southwest: The eagle still is considered endangered in Arizona and New Mexico and parts of Texas and Oklahoma.

More battles must be won, conservationists warn. Development of shoreline is a problem, though eagles have proved more adaptable to human disturbance than expected. The largest gathering of eagles in Maryland is at Aberdeen Proving Ground, within earshot of frequent explosions from munitions tests.

"This is not an ultimate victory; this is a milestone along the way," Mr. Clark said. "The species is still threatened, still at risk, and its habitat is continuing to decline steadily."

In Washington, in a squabble that is common regarding environmental issues these days, the eagle's comeback is a cause for dispute as much as celebration.

Conservationists are seizing upon the bird's recovery as a tonic to the bitter battles in recent years over protecting other threatened and endangered creatures, such as the northern spotted owl.

"What the bald eagle demonstrates is: We have it within our power to bring back a species from the brink," said Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Using the eagle as their poster child, environmentalists are trying to rally support for the Endangered Species Act, which is under assault from critics who claim it puts animals before people's jobs and livelihood. Those critics contend that the 21-year-old federal law was almost irrelevant to the eagle's recovery.

"The bald eagle was saved primarily because of banning DDT," said Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin, a Louisiana Democrat. The pesticide, banned in 1972, was blamed for fatally thinning the eggshells of eagles and other birds.

Responding to complaints from shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico about federal requirements to protect rare sea turtles, Mr. Tauzin is leading efforts in Congress to rewrite the endangered species law to put "more certainty and fairness" for people in it. "When you lose your job in the state of Washington because of an owl, when you lose your shrimp boat in Louisiana because of a turtle, or you lose your home in California because of a rat, the cost of environmental protection hits home," Mr. Tauzin said.

Environmentalists say Mr. Tauzin's legislation would spell doom for endangered species, and they contend that the eagle's noncontroversial recovery is more typical of the law, which now protects more than 800 animals and plants.

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