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Bald eagle soaring 'success,' but at what cost?

Story Highlights

• Bald eagle recovery is called a victory for the Endangered Species Act
• U.S. government is expected to delist eagle as a "threatened species" by June 29
• Conservationist worries bald eagle habitat will fall prey to developers
• Minnesota landowner: "Eagles don't pay taxes; I pay taxes"
By Peggy Mihelich
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(CNN) -- The bald eagle is officially about to become a "conservation success story" for the U.S. government, which has worked for more than three decades to help the national symbol recover from habitat destruction, illegal shooting and contamination of its food source.

By June 29, the government is expected to take bald eagles off the Endangered Species Act's "threatened" list. The birds then would be protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

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.

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." (Audio Slide Show: One bald eagle's story of survival)

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.

Bald eagle recovery

Bald eagle populations severely declined in the lower 48 states between 1870 and 1970 due to hunting, habitat loss and the use of DDT. (Quiz: Test your bald eagle knowledge)

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.

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. (Learn more about the Endangered Species Act)

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. (Map: Bald eagles by state)

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 29 deadline, which the government said it will meet.

Future conservation

The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to 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 also 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 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. (I-Report Gallery: Bald eagles in the wild)

Endangered species delistings are often contentious. The proposal to delist the Northern Rockies gray wolf has ranchers worried packs of wolves will be free to attack livestock, while conservationists argue without safeguards wolves will be hunted back to just above relisting levels.

On Monday, 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.

Currently 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.


There are currently 9,789 bald eagle breeding pairs in the lower 48 states, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.



Will bald eagles continue to thrive once they are off the endangered species list?
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