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Bald Eagle Removed from Endangered Species List

June 28, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, the big comeback of the bald eagle. NewsHour correspondent Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

DENNIS MANZER, Eagle Research Volunteer: We don’t have very far to go, and we should get some really good looks at these birds.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: These are exhilarating days for eagle watchers, like Dennis Manzer and Phil Carroll. Carroll is with the Oregon office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the government agency charged with restoring the bald eagle population. Manzer is one of 250 volunteers in Oregon who have monitored the birds for years to see if they’re reproducing.

DENNIS MANZER: Last year, they got a healthy singleton off, and this year a repeat of last.

They’re perfectly silhouetted. I can see the chick, too. What a beautiful pair.

LEE HOCHBERG: Today’s ceremony to remove the bald eagle from the endangered species list was held at the Jefferson Memorial in the nation’s capital. Representatives from the government and key conservation groups hailed the de-listing as a rousing success for the act which protected the eagles’ habitat.

DIRK KEMPTHORNE, U.S. Interior Secretary: Today, we mark the return of America’s bald eagle to the skies and celebrate the fact that eagles fly free, from sea to shining sea.

An estimated 10,000 pairs today

LEE HOCHBERG: In 1963, there were only 400 nesting pairs left in the lower 48 states. Today, there are an estimated 10,000 pairs.

PHIL CARROLL, U.S. Fish and Wildlife: Four hundred nesting pairs in the whole lower 48 states is scary low numbers. They could have become extinct, but the Endangered Species Act is a really, really powerful tool.

LEE HOCHBERG: The recovery is due to more than just the Endangered Species Act; it's the culmination of more than 60 years of efforts. In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, prohibiting poisoning, trapping, or shooting of the regal birds. But eagles were threatened again after World War II when the widespread use of DDT caused them to lay thin-shelled eggs. In 1973, Congress banned use of DDT and put the bald eagle on the endangered species list, designed to protect critically imperiled species from extinction.

Since then, the government has spent $1 million a year protecting the bird. Frank Isaacs, the head of the Bald Eagle Nest Survey Project at Oregon State University says protecting the birds' habitat was crucial.

FRANK ISAACS, Eagle Researcher: That habitat protection was very important to the success of the recovery that we've seen. We know what they need to nest and successfully raise young.

From endangered to threatened

LEE HOCHBERG: So successful was the recovery that, in 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially reclassified the eagle from "endangered" to "threatened," although the same protections remained. In 1999, President Bill Clinton announced his intent to remove the eagle entirely from the protected list, but it took another eight years of study to make that happen.

ASTRONAUT: OK, engine stopped. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

LEE HOCHBERG: The eagle has long captured America's fancy. The Continental Congress adopted it as a national symbol back in 1782. It's on the back of quarters, and half-dollars, and dollar bills, and on passports. America's reverence for the bird is even the subject of late-night parody.

FRANK ISAACS: They're very large; they're very regal-looking; they're very good flyers. And I think those qualities really enable us to relate to bald eagles.

LEE HOCHBERG: But Isaacs is afraid relaxed regulation after de-listing will allow encroaching development to once again imperil the eagle. In fact, the de-listing was actually prompted by a lawsuit against the government filed by a Minnesota man who wants to build five vacation cabins on his land near an eagles nest. Ed Contoski argued the government should de-list the bird, since it had announced in 1999 that the species was recovered.

ED CONTOSKI, Landowner: All of the other properties around the lake on this general development lake have been developed, and I'm just asking to do what the others had done.

Protection of habitat

LEE HOCHBERG: Although a federal court agreed about taking the bird off of the endangered species list, the bald eagle remains covered by the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits "disturbing" an eagle. Exactly what that means has been debated.

Contoski's attorney, Damien Schiff, of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, has one view.

DAMIEN SCHIFF, Pacific Legal Foundation: We think, with the recovery of the eagle, that we can allow some development activity, some habitat modification, some relaxation of the burdens on property owners.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed allowing what it calls a limited take of bald eagles. It says it will still protect habitat. Isaacs is concerned that that protection effort from here on in will come after the habitat's already been disturbed, not before.

FRANK ISAACS: There's a greater potential for harm to occur. And even though the harming person may be punished afterwards, it's still already done damage to the species or the habitat.

Tracking eagles for the government

LEE HOCHBERG: And there are other concerns. The Endangered Species Act requires the government monitor a species for at least five years following de-listing. Environmentalists had hoped the monitoring plan would be announced and debated months ago, but it was just released today, leaving no time for discussion.

Dennis Manzer, who puts in 2,000 volunteer hours per year tracking eagles for the government, also worries that Congress hasn't approved any funding for the monitoring yet.

DENNIS MANZER: There is no clear-cut method to get it paid for, and that's where I think our -- perhaps Congress has let us down. There's not one mention of 10 cents to implement it.

LEE HOCHBERG: Still, most eagle watchers say the recovery of the species is a remarkable success, unlikely to be easily replicated by less charismatic species, those like the Pacific Northwest's northern spotted owl, vilified by the logging industry for shutting down operations and hung in effigy in local bars.

PHIL CARROLL: The spotted owl didn't have the fan base that the eagle had. The eagle has been our national symbol since 1782, and people knew what it was and loved it. It's very much better for any species to capture this public fancy.

LEE HOCHBERG: The challenge, he says, is to emulate the eagles' recovery on species not so known or revered.