Bald Eagle is back from the brink of extinction

KEYWORDS: bald eagle Bald Eagle BALD EAGLE US national bird bald eagle history eagle habitat endangered species threatened species eagles Eagles EAGLES Endangered Species Act of 1973 Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 eagle jewelry

Our majestic national bird is flying high over much of its former range and the bald eagle may soon be off the endangered species list. Bald eagles ruled the skies on seven-foot (two-meter) wingspans when 17th-century Europeans arrived in North America. Throughout the continent, half a million bald eagles may have soared. But settlers blamed them for killing livestock, so shooting began—and the proud birds’ numbers began to plunge.

In their northern range eagles remained relatively protected by isolation. But early last century, during Alaska’s go-for-broke pioneer days, fishermen and fox farmers alleged that the eagles were stealing their livelihood. The territorial legislature responded by enacting a bounty in 1917. By the time it was repealed in 1953, at least 128,000 bald eagles had been killed.

It took 20 years for the Alaska birds to rebound.

By 1973—the year the Endangered Species Act was passed—populations in Alaska and much of Canada were stable, so bald eagles were not protected by the act in Alaska or by federal law in Canada. Today some 100,000 thrive in those two locations.

In the lower 48 states, eagles fared much worse. The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibited shooting or otherwise harming bald eagles in the U.S. but didn’t cover the pesticides that within a decade began to destroy eagles’ eggs by weakening the shells.

By the 1960s only about 400 breeding pairs of bald eagles remained in the lower 48. “The trend…may well make it necessary for us to find a new national emblem,” Rachel Carson warned in her 1962 masterwork, Silent Spring.

The banning of DDT in 1972 and other measures launched an amazing comeback by the bald eagles, whose status changed from endangered to threatened in 1995.

Today, with more than 6,000 breeding pairs, bald eagles may soon be taken off the endangered species list entirely, their survival as an icon secured—for now.

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