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Bald eagle soars off endangered list

  • Story Highlights
  • Bald eagle delisted as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act
  • Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne: "The eagle has returned"
  • Conservationist worries bald eagle habitat will fall prey to developers
  • Minnesota landowner: "Eagles don't pay taxes; I pay taxes"
  • Next Article in Technology »
By Peggy Mihelich
CNN
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(CNN) -- The bald eagle, America's national symbol, is flying high after spending three decades in recovery. On Thursday, the government took the eagle off the Endangered Species Act's "threatened" list.

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Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announces the return of the bald eagle on Thursday.

"The eagle has returned," Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne told government officials, wildlife conservationists and journalists at a ceremony held on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.

"Today is an opportunity to celebrate and draw inspiration," Kempthorne added.

"We do have 1,300 species that have been listed and our recovery rate is about 1 percent. I would like to see us have more days like this when we can announce success and victory and delisting of species."

Since the 1970s, the government has worked hard to save the bald eagle, which was dying off because of habitat destruction, illegal shooting and contamination of its food source. Video Watch bald eagles along the Hudson River »

It was first listed as endangered, then threatened, and now is off the list entirely.

Challenger, a bald eagle, also attended the ceremony. Challenger is a teaching bird who travels the country educating young and old about the national symbol. See one bald eagle's story of survival »

The birds will be now protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Bald eagle populations severely declined in the lower 48 states between 1870 and 1970 because of hunting, habitat loss and the use of DDT.

DDT, a powerful insecticide, made bald eagle eggshells so weak they couldn't produce viable offspring. In 1963, there were only 417 breeding pairs in the lower 48. Photo See bald eagles in the wild »

In a national effort to save the iconic bird, the federal government banned the use of DDT in 1972 and placed the bald eagle under protection of the Endangered Species Act, which allowed the government to protect bald eagle habitat.

These two key factors helped it recover, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, there are 9,789 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states.

But Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group said this victory comes at a price -- loss of eagle habitat protection.

The bird's nesting grounds were protected as long as the bald eagle was considered a "threatened" species. But the less restrictive eagle protection act does not put eagle habitats off-limits.

Suckling said he worries that without habitat protection, developers will move into critical bald eagle areas, push the birds out and reduce their numbers.

"There is big money to be made in cutting down and developing bald eagle habitat," he said.

Bald Eagle Facts

  • The bald eagle is unique to North America.

  • They nest near coastlines, rivers, large lakes or streams that support an adequate food supply.
  • They eat fish, ducks, rodents snakes and carrion.

  • Male bald eagles generally measure 3 feet from head to tail and weigh 7 to 10 pounds. Females are slightly larger.

  • Bald eagles can live more than 30 years in the wild, longer in captivity.

  • They mate for life, building nests in the tops of large trees.

  • Bald eagles normally lay two or three eggs once a year.

  • The distinctive white head and tail feathers appear only after the bird is 4 or 5 years old.

    Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits anyone without a permit from "taking" bald eagles, including their parts, nests and eggs. Its definition of "take" includes: pursuit, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing, capturing, trapping, collecting, molesting and disturbing.

    "For the most part, it's a shooting and hunting statute," said Nicholas Throckmorton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    "It does talk a little about nesting and the tree that eagles are in, but it's not intended to protect habitat or ecosystems."

    As part of his concern, Suckling points to Arizona, home to 43 breeding pairs. The birds nest along small rivers, which are easily affected by development, he explained. Suckling said once protection is gone, these rivers will be under severe threat.

    He said he's particularly concerned about growth in Prescott in central Arizona and its impact on the Verde River, which he said could harm eagles' nests.

    One landowner ready for delisting is Minnesota retiree Edmund Contoski.

    Contoski, 69, wants to build five log homes on his undeveloped seven-acre property along Lake Sullivan. However, the Endangered Species Act has prohibited development within 330 feet of an active bald eagle's nest on his property -- that covers all of Contoski's usable land.

    "Eagles don't pay taxes; I pay taxes," Contoski said. "I'm paying taxes, and I can't do anything with the property."

    In 2005, he challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service to make good on its 1999 proposal to delist the bald eagle. He took the agency to court and won. His court battle led to the June 28 delisting.

    The Fish and Wildlife Service will issue voluntary guidelines for landowners to protect bald eagles and permits to people who wish to evict a bald eagle from their property.

    The agency took the additional step of defining what it actually means to "disturb" an eagle under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act: "To agitate or bother a bald or golden eagle to a degree that causes, or is likely to cause, based on the best scientific information available, 1) injury to an eagle, 2) a decrease in its productivity, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding or sheltering behavior, or 3) nest abandonment, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding or sheltering behavior."

    The conservation organization National Wildlife Federation called it a "solid framework" that will keep the bald eagle around for generations to come. Dr. Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, said he feels confident that "good things will happen for the bald eagle" as a result of the government's actions.

    Suckling said while that definition will help protect the birds, it fails to protect their habitat.

    "The definition is linked to bothering or agitating actually present birds; it does not apply to logging the nest area when the bird is not present," he explained.

    Suckling offered this analogy: "You come back from your summer vacation and someone has trashed your property so badly that you can't live there anymore. Have you been 'disturbed'? I would say so, but the Fish and Wildlife Service definition says, 'No.' "

    Paul Schmidt, the Fish and Wildlife Service's assistant director for migratory birds, told CNN.com the government is confident the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act will "afford adequate protections" and the agency won't see a decline in populations after delisting.

    "Americans can and will coexist with a healthy and sustainable population of bald eagles," Schmidt added.

    Endangered species delistings are often contentious. The proposal to delist the Northern Rockies gray wolf worries conservationists, who argue that without safeguards, wolf populations will dangerously dwindle. But ranchers say that if the wolves are protected, they will over-reproduce and packs of them will attack their livestock.

    Earlier this month, conservation groups filed a lawsuit asking the government to restore Endangered Species Act protections for the Yellowstone grizzly bear. Lack of habitat protection and climate change threaten the bears' future, says Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm representing the environmental groups.

    The Yellowstone grizzly bear was delisted in March. For more than 30 years, it was considered a "threatened" species.

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    There are 541 animals in the United States listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Twenty animals have been delisted under the act; 10 are considered recovered. (Recovery is the process by which the decline of an endangered or threatened species is considered arrested or reversed.)

    The Endangered Species Act calls for five years of monitoring following delisting of a species. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

    All About BirdsWildlifeBirdingEndangered SpeciesU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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