The symbol of U.S. freedom, the American bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, has gone from the brink of extinction to a burgeoning population in under 50 years thanks to help and protection from the Endangered Species Act. This holiday week seems like a portentous time to announce that after years of decline due to habitat degradation and disappearance, hunting, poaching and the infamous DDT toxicity numbers of breeding pairs of American eagles are on the rise. The eagle was chosen as the national bird on June 20, 1782 and protected from commercial trapping and hunting along with the golden eagle by the “The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940.” When it became apparent that further protections were need the American bald eagle was added to the Endangered Species Act in 1967 and later removed from the list in the 1990s as the bird population began to rebound.
Ornithologists and biologists surveying bird populations nationwide have counted over 69,000 bald eagles currently living in the U.S., a massive improvement over the just 487 breeding pairs found in 1963 before the species was listed. Although this is considered a success for both the eagles and the power of the ESA, the bald eagle population still remains much smaller than the estimated 100,000 animals which existed in 1792.
The National Wildlife Federation determined that the leading contributors to the decline of bald eagle populations when numbers bottomed out in 1984 were power line electrocution, hunting, in-flight collisions, vehicle impacts and hunting. And although the use of the pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, the bald eagle was still feeling the effects of acute toxicity on its reproduction. While the current increases in population size is remarkable and exciting, researchers, biologists and wildlife conservationists are still worried for the future of the species; their natural habitat continues to shrink, becomes degraded and are susceptible to injuries due to human interaction. Awareness needs to remain high and protections must remain in place in order for this delicate species continued future success.