Protected since 1967, the eagle may be delisted as soon as Thursday
BY Mark Clayton  /  June 28, 2007

Bald eagles were once so reviled in Maine that settlers killed and fed them to hogs. Wrongly tarred as livestock predators, they were poisoned in South Dakota and shot from airplanes in California. By 1963, eagles had dwindled from an estimated half a million birds to just 417 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. But in one of the most remarkable comebacks by a US species close to extinction, the bald eagle has rebounded to more than 11,000 pairs. As a result, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is expected as soon as Thursday to remove the bald eagle from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list of threatened species. It’s a step environmentalists generally support, along with enthusiastic property-rights advocates who fought hard to get the eagle delisted. Even without ESA protection, however, the bald eagle numbers will be monitored by the FWS for the next five years, and the eagle will still be protected by at least three federal and numerous state laws – though none are as powerful as the ESA, legal experts say. In fact, it is the ESA itself that deserves much of the credit for the eagle’s comeback, many say.

“The bald eagle represents one of the greatest endangered species recovery stories in US history,” says Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group focused on endangered species preservation based in Tucson, Ariz. “But it’s really a victory for the Endangered Species Act as much as anything else.” Although the eagle was prohibited by law from being killed as long ago as 1940, its 1967 designation as an endangered species for the first time protected key bald-eagle habitat from development. It also opened the way for funding four decades of tender support from thousands of biologists and volunteers who hatched chicks and monitored nests – and galvanized Congress to ban the pesticide DDT, which had increased eagle mortality. With the ESA protecting key habitat, and DDT gone, the eagle soared from near elimination to a coast-to-coast presence. Without it, the eagle today would exist in just a handful of states, Mr. Suckling says. While habitat protection will be far less now, other key laws remain. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 prohibits the killing of migratory birds, including the eagle. State laws also continue to protect eagles, although they run the gamut from the stiff protections of Washington State to far weaker regulations in Arizona and Wyoming, experts say. Perhaps the toughest remaining protection is the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Beside outright killing of eagles, that law also prohibits “disturbing” the eagle – although just what it means to disturb an eagle had never been defined until a few weeks ago. Under an updated FWS’s regulatory definition, disturbing now includes any human activity that drives the eagle away from its nests. So developers whose operations drive the birds away will now fit the definition of “disturbing” and be subject to federal sanctions.

That new definition rankles Edmund Contoski, a Minnesota developer, who, now that the eagle is to be delisted from the ESA, has his sights set on building a subdivision on property abutting the shore of Sullivan Lake in Minnesota. It was Mr. Contoski’s successful federal lawsuit and court order that nudged the FWS toward delisting the eagle after an eight year-long delay. Now his attorney says he’ll sue again if the updated eagle protection act prevents him building on Sullivan Lake. “It makes no sense why the wildlife service would afford the same level of protection before, as after the delisting,” says Damien Schiff, a staff attorney for the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights advocacy group. “If the eagle is delisted, there should be some reduction in regulations. But the way the regulation has been drafted and finalized, we believe the protections will remain essentially the same.” That legal threat aimed at eagle habitat has some eagle watchers concerned. While eagle populations are up overall, some states now are seeing eagle numbers level off. In Florida, where development pressures are intense, eagle populations have been flat with about 1,100 pairs for five years, because they have saturated their available habitat. Something similar is also happening in Washington state. And in a few areas, such as Vermont, eagles still aren’t soaring. “We want to make sure the eagle population stays stable and healthy now that it’s recovered to an appropriate level,” says Mike Dalton, director of conservation policy at the National Audubon Society in Washington. “The problem is that bald eagles like waterfronts, rivers, streams, and beaches that are popular for development. We need to make sure we don’t sacrifice all the bald eagle habitat now that we’re seeing their numbers recover.” While some question whether it was the act, or banning DDT, that saved the eagle, others say the eagle’s success may be a harbinger of other wildlife recovery success stories. Among ESA listed species, 92 percent have seen populations increase or remain stable since going on the list, the Center for Biological Diversity reports. “We hope and expect that the eagle’s success is just a hint of things to come,” Suckling says.


Yellowstone Grizzly Bears Off Endangered List / March 22, 2007

After nearly disappearing three decades ago, grizzly bears are thriving in the Yellowstone ecosystem and no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett announced today. “The grizzly’s remarkable comeback is the result of years of intensive cooperative recovery efforts between federal and state agencies, conservation groups, and individuals,” Scarlett said.  “There is simply no way to overstate what an amazing accomplishment this is. The grizzly is a large predator that requires a great deal of space, and conserving such animals is a challenge in today’s world.  I believe all Americans should be proud that, as a nation, we had the will and the ability to protect and restore this symbol of the wild.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is removing the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears from its status as  “threatened” on the U.S. list of threatened and endangered species.  Four other grizzly populations in the lower 48 states have not yet recovered and will continue to be protected as threatened species under the Act. Grizzly numbers in the Yellowstone ecosystem have increased from an estimated population of 136 to 312 when they were listed as threatened in 1975, to more than 500 bears today. Yellowstone grizzlies will now be managed under a comprehensive conservation strategy developed by state and federal scientists and managers that includes intensive monitoring of Yellowstone bears, their food, and their habitat.  The conservation strategy incorporates the best available science and allows state and federal agencies to adjust management in response to new scientific information or environmental and bear population changes.  State and federal managers will continue to work cooperatively under this framework to manage and maintain healthy grizzly bear populations throughout the Greater Yellowstone area. “This comprehensive conservation strategy, agreed to by all state and federal players involved in grizzly recovery, will ensure that the future of the bear remains bright,” Scarlett noted.

The Yellowstone grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species because of loss of habitat and high mortality resulting from conflicts with humans.  An interagency scientific study team was formed in 1973, and over the years the Yellowstone grizzlies have become the most intensely studied bear population in the world. In the 1980’s a multi-agency team, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), was established.  The IGBC managed bear mortality and habitat, worked to build public support, and helped develop adequate regulatory mechanisms for the bears. The IGBC includes the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, state wildlife agencies of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Washington; and the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.  Universities and private organizations have contributed to the study and conservation of the Yellowstone grizzlies as well.

Since the early 1990s, the Yellowstone population has grown at a rate of 4 percent to 7 percent per year.  Grizzly range in the Yellowstone Ecosystem has increased 48 percent since they were listed, and biologists have sighted bears more than 60 miles from what was once thought to be the outer limits of their range The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to delist grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem in November 2005.  The proposal was reviewed at four open houses and two public hearings; more than 193,500 public comments were received. Notification of the delisting of the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears will be published in the Federal Register in the near future. More information about today’s announcement can be found at

Grizzly bears are generally larger and heavier than other bears.  They can be distinguished from black bears by longer, curved claws, humped shoulders and a face that appears to be concave.  A wide range of coloration from light brown to nearly black is common. The bear’s coat features longer guard hairs over a dense mat of underfur with tips that are usually silver or golden in color – hence the name “grizzly.”  In the lower 48 states, the average weight of grizzly bears is generally 400 to 600 pounds for males and 250 to 350 pounds for females.  They generally live to be approximately 25 years old, although some wild bears have lived over 35 years.

Grizzlies are opportunistic feeders and will consume almost any available food including living or dead mammals or fish, grasses, roots, bulbs, tubers and fungi.  The distribution and abundance of these grizzly bear foods vary naturally among seasons and years. Biologists believe the Yellowstone area grizzly population and other remaining grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states and Canada are markedly separate from each other, with no evidence of interaction with other populations.   There are approximately 1,100 to 1,200 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, in five separate populations in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington. In addition to the Yellowstone area, grizzlies also occur in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, where grizzly populations are stable or increasing and number 400 to 500 bears; in the Selkirk ecosystem where there are 40 to 50 bears; in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, with 30 to 40 bears; and in the Northern Cascade ecosystem where there are approximately 5 bears.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 547 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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