Perhaps without noticing, you will come into contact with a bald eagle at some point today. Even right now, tucked into the folds of your wallet or purse is a sharp beak, focused eyes and a mighty wingspan gracing the back of a $1 bill. The image of this magnificent bird has become a staple of our lives; yet for much of recent American history, it was difficult to spot the bald eagle where we craved to see it most – in nature.
In the pre-industrial era, the bald eagle ranged throughout the United States, nesting at the tops of tall trees and subsisting primarily on fish. Once estimated to be as many as 100,000 individuals, by the 1960s eagles were struggling. By 1963, there were as few as 417 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. This decline was tied to habitat loss and widespread use of the synthetic insecticide DDT, which caused eagles to lay thin-shelled eggs prone to breaking during incubation.
Recovery began with the implementation of multiple new laws that not only protected the eagle, but restored its ecosystem. In 1967, the bird joined the first group of species federally listed as endangered under the precursor of today’s Endangered Species Act. Within a few years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT because of the risk it generated for both human and environmental health.
The Endangered Species Act protected bald eagles from shooting, poisoning and other disturbances, with the goal of reaching a healthy population that no longer required the act’s protection. Preservation came through habitat management that focused on all aspects of the eagle’s life, including maintenance of nesting sites and identification of wintering habitats. The strategy acknowledged the harmful effects of chemicals like DDT as they travel up a food chain.
By 2007, the population in the lower 48 states had increased to almost 10,000 breeding pairs. On July 9, 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. This month, we celebrate that amazing achievement.
Today, bald eagles still enjoy protections under multiple federal laws, including the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Protection of the bird came when Americans were focused not only on conserving our nation’s unique species, but also on cleaning waterways and preserving landscapes. Valuing the whole landscape is what made this success story possible.
The bald eagle’s story did not end with its removal from the endangered list nine years ago. We must continue to care for this bird, as its presence plays an important role in many ecosystem functions, as well as our nation’s collective identity. However, that step was a meaningful milestone in our country’s conservation efforts, a reminder of our power to restore a damaged natural world.
So the next time you pull out a dollar bill, remember how all species – from the most obscure to the most charismatic – need and deserve protection.
Michael Bean is principal deputy assistant secretary for the federal Fish and Wildlife and Parks. He wrote this for the Orlando Sentinel.