Bald Eagle Is No Longer an Endangered Species Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The status of the American bald eagle was reduced to “threatened,” and the California gray whale was removed from the federal list of endangered species, confirming their comeback from the verge of extinction.

Summary of Event

The Endangered Species Act of 1973, Endangered Species Act (1973) a cornerstone of federal environmental legislation, was set up to protect plant and animal species in danger of extinction. The act also enabled the protection of endangered local populations of species not generally at risk. Under the act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior and the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Department of Commerce were made responsible for designating a species as either endangered or, if its plight was somewhat less serious, threatened. Bald eagles Endangered species;bald eagle Birds, protection [kw]Bald Eagle Is No Longer an Endangered Species (June, 1994) [kw]Eagle Is No Longer an Endangered Species, Bald (June, 1994) [kw]Endangered Species, Bald Eagle Is No Longer an (June, 1994) [kw]Species, Bald Eagle Is No Longer an Endangered (June, 1994) Bald eagles Endangered species;bald eagle Birds, protection [g]North America;June, 1994: Bald Eagle Is No Longer an Endangered Species[08900] [g]United States;June, 1994: Bald Eagle Is No Longer an Endangered Species[08900] [c]Animals and endangered species;June, 1994: Bald Eagle Is No Longer an Endangered Species[08900] Frampton, George Beattie, Mollie

In 1994, twenty-one years after they had been officially classified as endangered, the American bald eagle and the California gray whale, both once threatened with extinction, were reclassified, the eagle as threatened and the whale as entirely recovered. Only three other species had until then been moved from the endangered to the threatened category: the American alligator, the Aleutian Canada goose, and the Arctic peregrine falcon.

In 1973, that most majestic of national symbols, the American bald eagle, was listed as endangered in all of the lower forty-eight states except Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where it was listed as threatened. (The bald eagle was not considered at risk in Alaska and so was not protected there under the Endangered Species Act.) The June, 1994, decision reclassified the bald eagle as threatened everywhere in the lower forty-eight states except parts of the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas, Oklahoma, and a small part of southeastern California), where it continued to be listed as endangered. In 1974, shortly after the Endangered Species Act went into effect, only 791 adult nesting pairs of the eagle could be counted in the lower forty-eight states. By 1994, about 4,000 pairs were counted, and more than 9,700 pairs were counted in 2006. In 2007, the decision was made to remove the bald eagle from the endangered species list altogether.

Although the bald eagle had long been by far the most protected American bird—provisions for its protection were included in four previous federal laws—it was undoubtedly its inclusion on the endangered species list that led to the resurgence of its population. Unlike other laws, the Endangered Species Act gives the federal government unprecedented, sweeping powers to control the conditions affecting endangered animals. It is important that the designation “endangered” publicizes the plight of a species and influences wide-ranging policy decisions, but the act also specifies criminal penalties for harassing or killing protected animals. In addition, the act strictly controls construction projects and pollution in areas where such activities could be detrimental to wildlife, and it includes provisions for implementation of captive-breeding programs where necessary.

All of these factors contributed significantly to the success of the effort to save the bald eagle. Most conservationists agree, however, that the key to the bird’s dramatic recovery was the Environmental Protection Agency’s ban in 1972 on the use in the United States of the pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), DDT which was widely sprayed on crops and in suburban gardens in the post-World War II years. Predators such as the eagle were not exposed to the chemical directly; rather, they ingested large amounts of DDT through their diets of contaminated fish and small mammals. The chemical caused the eggs of certain birds, among them the bald eagle, to develop with thin shells that broke easily, leading to devastating effects on natural propagation.

Many of the other threats that had brought the bald eagle to its endangered state were still problematic after 1994. Shootings, disturbance of nests, and contamination continued to be serious threats, exacerbated by the pressures of human population growth and expansion and by the demand for the development of wildlands. Despite concern about the long-range implications of “downlisting” the bald eagle, however, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists believed that reclassifying the bird as threatened would not lead to relaxation of protective measures already in place to protect both the species and its habitats. These measures proved to be strong enough to allow the species to continue to recover, as its removal from the endangered species list in 2007 showed.

A bald eagle lands on its nest.

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Dave Menke)

The news of the bald eagle’s recovery was preceded by the announcement of an even greater success with the California gray whale, Endangered species;whales Gray whales California gray whales which had been considered to be endangered since the early 1970’s. On January 7, 1993, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. and the National Marine Fisheries National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. determined that the whale, the habitat of which is the eastern North Pacific, had recovered to near its estimated original population. (Its western North Pacific cousin, the Korean gray whale, remained on the endangered list.) The recovery of the California gray whale population resulted in large part from Mexico’s efforts to protect the whale’s calving and winter habitat. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there may have been more California gray whales in 1994 than at any time before commercial whaling reached its peak in the mid-1880’s. In California waters alone, the gray whale population doubled between 1974 and 1994.

Significance

The Endangered Species Act was scheduled for reauthorization in 1994, soon after the momentous decision was made public to reclassify the American bald eagle from endangered to threatened. That announcement not only publicized the eagle’s resurgence but also represented an enormous popular success for environmental legislation. Despite objections from interest groups and a few members of Congress who wanted to weaken the act, a bill to reauthorize and improve the Endangered Species Act was passed by the 103d Congress. A major goal of the reauthorized Endangered Species Act was to prevent species from becoming endangered in the first place. The act therefore included provisions for protecting species that did not qualify for the threatened or endangered designation but whose populations were declining.

The reauthorized act had three other main objectives as well. The first was to plan not only for single species but also for entire ecosystems. One criticism leveled at the 1973 act had been that it attempted to recover species one at a time. The strengthened 1994 bill called for the development of multispecies listings and recovery plans to address the need of all species within a particular ecosystem. A second objective was the improvement of recovery plans for all listed species through participation by state agencies and local communities. Because so much of the critical habitat for endangered species exists on privately owned land, a third objective involved building more effective partnerships with private citizens; it was hoped that economic incentives and technical assistance to landowners would help in the effort to preserve habitats.

News of the eagle’s recovery was politically advantageous for the Fish and Wildlife Service in its lobbying for congressional funding, and it certainly helped bring about the strengthened 1994 Endangered Species Act. Most of the money and expertise available under the old act had gone to megavertebrates such as the bald eagle. It was hoped that the 1994 act would promote interest in preserving regional habitats and less glamorous species, such as invertebrates and plants, on which ecosystems and the global equilibrium depend. Bald eagles Endangered species;bald eagle Birds, protection

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beans, Bruce E. Eagle’s Plume: Preserving the Life and Habitat of America’s Bald Eagle. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996. Provides an encouraging look at locations where bald eagles are thriving and relates stories of humans’ efforts to assist the birds. Also discusses some human beings’ carelessness with the eagle and its habitats.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dedina, Serge. Saving the Gray Whale: People, Politics, and Conservation in Baja California. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000. Describes the gray whale’s life cycle, habitats, and history while focusing on a movement in Mexico to protect the whale, whose migratory route includes the waters off Baja California. Features illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DiSilvestro, Roger L. The Endangered Kingdom: The Struggle to Save America’s Wildlife. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1989. Presents a detailed account of American wildlife protected by the Endangered Species Act. Includes a foreword by noted environmentalist and population scholar Paul Ehrlich.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Frank, Jr. “Winged Victory.” Audubon (July/August, 1994): 36-41. Relates the history of the bald eagle’s plight and the efforts made on its behalf.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohm, Kathryn A., ed. Balancing on the Brink of Extinction: The Endangered Species Act and Lessons for the Future. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1991. Collection of essays discusses the history, mechanics, and implications of the Endangered Species Act. Provides useful background for understanding the classification and recovery processes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peyser, Marc. “Between a Wing and a Prayer.” Newsweek, September 19, 1994, 58-60. Discusses the conflicting claims of the Eagle Protection Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, as exemplified in a Yakima Native American’s conviction for killing bald eagles, the feathers of which he used for religious purposes.

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