June 28, 2007 marked a victory for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, with the announcement of the American bald eagle's delisting. The ESA is intended to afford protection to imperiled species and facilitate their recovery. For the bald eagle, the ESA has been a lifeline, facilitating the species' recovery from a low point of only slightly more than 400 nesting pairs in the contiguous United States in 1963.
When the bald eagle became the national symbol of the United States in 1782, nesting eagles were thought to have numbered 100,000. Their first significant decline likely took place in the late 1800s, when many were shot by settlers who considered the birds a threat to farm animals—even though fish and carrion make up the bulk of the eagles' diet.
The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibited the killing, selling or possessing of any eagle parts, nests or eggs. However, intentional killing continued. And after World War II, the ingestion of animals contaminated by DDT caused eagles to experience infertility and a significant increase in embryo mortality, due to thinner eggshells. Realizing the raptors were in peril, the Secretary of the Interior listed the bald eagle under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966—the precursor to the current ESA. Official ESA protection was awarded in 1978.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there are now an estimated 11,040 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Though delisted from the ESA, bald eagles continue to be protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The species will also be monitored for five years under the ESA to ensure the delisting decision was correct.
The Bush Administration has listed the smallest number of species since the ESA was promulgated, and it has only done so in response to citizen petitions and/or lawsuits. The Administration and a few key Members of Congress have also repeatedly tried to undermine the Act. While the story of the bald eagle is one of success, hundreds of species remain on the list. Thousands more that should be included are not, and dozens of species have gone extinct as they awaited listing. It is critical that the ESA be preserved, and ideally strengthened, to ensure more recoveries in the future.