Eagles fly off the endangered species list


In a rare environmental success story, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Mollie Beattie says her agency will soon reclassify bald eagles from endangered status to threatened, in most of the lower 48 states.

Beattie's proposal, which becomes effective Sept. 28, marks only the 14th time that a species has been rescued from near-extinction under the Endangered Species Act (HCN, 9/6/93).

But in Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas and southeastern California, bald eagles are recovering at a much slower rate than elsewhere. Habitat is limited, and the number of nesting birds has reached only 30 pairs, says Jennifer Fowler-Propst, an agency spokeswoman in New Mexico. In the Southwest, the more serious status of endangered remains in effect for bald eagles.

The announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been expected for over a year. Bald eagle populations in the seven-state Pacific recovery region have skyrocketed from 285 nesting pairs in 1980, to more than 1,060 pairs, well past the agency's goal of 800.

The banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972 is considered the single most important action taken to restore bald eagle populations. DDT caused eagles to lay eggs with thin shells. As a result, many eaglets never hatched.

Eagles faced other threats. Ranchers shot the birds to keep them from preying on newborn lambs. Government-funded predator-control agents poisoned them by mistake with toxin-laced deer carcasses. And eagles died from eating waterfowl riddled with lead shot.

These threats have mostly declined, but others remain. Eagles continue to be electrocuted by high-voltage powerlines. Poachers kill eagles for their feathers, which are sold worldwide on the black market.

Wildlife advocates say the biggest threat to eagles is the disappearance of habitat as rural areas develop. That leads to the loss of nesting and perching trees on undisturbed land.

Steve Stuebner writes in Boise, Idaho.

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