In one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories, bald eagle populations have climbed from a dismal count of just 417 nesting pairs in the entire continental US in 1963 to more than 11,000 pairs today in 2007.
This week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the list of threatened species entirely, after upgrading it in 1995 from endangered to threatened.
The United States government came to the eagle’s rescue by naming it one of the first species afforded full protection under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. It banned the use of lead shot for bird hunting in 1991, and funded an aggressive captive breeding program that assured for future generations the prominence of one of the most magnificent birds in the American landscape.
Half a million bald eagles inhabited the United States when the pilgrims arrived. Though the bird was made the U.S. national symbol on June 20, 1782, it suffered terrible abuses due to the mistaken belief that it was a dangerous predator. It was fed to hogs in Maine, shot from airplanes in California, poisoned in South Dakota, and hunted under a 50-cent bounty in Alaska. One hundred thousand eagles were killed in Alaska alone between 1917 and 1950. The state of Georgia declared that eagles, like the “hawk, owl, crow, sparrow, and meadow-lark, are considered to do more harm than good and may be shot at any time.”
These impacts declined somewhat with the passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, but everywhere eagle habitat continued to be logged, grazed, bulldozed and converted to farmland and housing. Eagles declined throughout the lower 48 and were extirpated from many states long before DDT became prevalent. The small populations that survived to the 1950s and 60s suffered catastrophic reproductive failure due to the thinning of their eggshells by DDT. All this began to change when the bald eagle was placed on the first national endangered species list in 1967. The listing (and that of the brown pelican and peregrine falcon) was a major factor in convincing Congress to ban most outdoor uses of DDT in 1972.
Eagle populations rebounded in response to the banning of DDT, protection from killing, habitat protection and restoration, artificial incubation of eggs, fostering of chicks, and reintroduction of eaglets.
A web-based report presents state-by-state graphs of eagle counts from 1967 to 2007 and provides a brief review of each state’s conservation history. Such information has never been collected in a single site before.
Four Regional Successes:
District of Columbia
The last bald eagle in Washington, D.C. deserted its Kingman Island nest on the
Anacostia River in 1946. From 1995 to 1998, urban youth volunteers with
the Earth Conservation Corps released four Wisconsin-born eaglets per year in the U.S. National Arboretum on the west bank of the Anacostia River. Several Corps members were killed in gang-related violence during the project. Three of the released eagles — Tink, Bennie, and Darrell — are named after them. In 2000, eagles nested again in D.C. on National Park Service land near the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. From their perch 80 feet high in an oak tree, they can see the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral. The nest was active in all years through 2007, but did not produce chicks in 2005 or 2006.
Historically, bald eagles were common along Alabama’s Gulf Coast and the Tennessee Valley. The population dwindled throughout the first half of the 20th century and was extirpated from the state after a last nesting attempt in 1949. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources initiated a Bald Eagle Restoration Project in 1984, releasing 91 juvenile eagles between 1985 and 1991. The first release was of four birds at Guntersville Lake in Jackson County. The first nesting attempt occurred in 1987, but was unsuccessful. Additional unsuccessful attempts occurred in 1988, 1989, and 1990 until in 1991 two nesting pairs successfully fledged young. Successful nesting has occurred in every year since, with the population steadily growing to 100 breeding pairs in 2007. The eagle is now found throughout the state along major lakes and rivers.
The bald eagle was formerly a common nester throughout Iowa, but was extirpated by the early 1900s due to habitat loss and persecution. The killing of adults and removal of nestlings, such as occurred at a long-occupied nest near Rowan in Wright County in 1877 was typical. The last nest known to be occupied occurred near Kellogg in Jasper County in 1905. Both eaglets were taken. Seventy-two years later, in 1977, a successful nest was found near New Albin in the Mississippi River floodplain. The population has dramatically increased since then to 210 pairs in 2007.
Bald eagles commonly nested in New York in the 19th century, began declining in the early 1900s, were rare by the 1950s, and dwindled to virtual extirpation in the 1960s. By 1974, the state population consisted of a single, non-reproducing pair in Livingston County. To save the species, New York instituted the first systematic reintroduction program with a combination of egg transplants, chick fostering, and eaglet hacking. Though unable to produce their own eggs, the Livingston County pair successfully accepted and fledged eight foster eagles over a five-year period. Between 1976 and 1988, 198 eaglets (mostly from Alaska, but also from the Great Lakes) were brought to New York and hacked into the wild. The first reintroduction consisted of two birds at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, which was believed to be free of DDT. After 13 years of hard work, the eagle population began to expand on its own, jumping from three pairs in 1988 to about 123 in 2007. The state reintroduction program ended in 1988, but New York City recently took up the cause, releasing 20 Wisconsin-born eaglets in Ironwood Hill Park at the northern tip of Manhattan between 2002 and 2006.