Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife eagle biologist Charlie Todd.
Is it time to take the eagle off the Endangered Species List?
All endangered species biologists hope that sometime in our career we will have the satisfaction of saving a species from extinction. After all, recovery of imperiled species is our highest work priority. We put our heart and soul into these efforts. Sadly, we spend more time adding species to state and federal endangered species lists that taking species off.
State and federal biologists and many other partners have been working diligently to save the bald eagle since it was added to the first federal endangered species list in 1967. When Rachel Carson wrote her book Silent Spring about the dangers of DDT and other pesticides in our environment in the early 1960s, bald eagle populations had declined to fewer than 500 pairs in the lower 48 states. Eggshell thinning and embryo mortality from DDT extirpated bald eagles from most of the Northeast, and their last stronghold was a tiny enclave of 27 pairs in Down East Maine. In 1972, the federal government banned DDT. In 1978, the bald eagle was listed as endangered throughout most of the lower 48 states. As DDT began to slowly diminished in the environment, numerous recovery programs were initiated to save our national symbol including purchasing nesting habitat, research to address threats, and restoring eagles to former habitat. The bald eagle quickly became a poster child for the growing movement to save endangered species, and the effort payed off. By the 1980s, bald eagle productivity slowly began to improve, and some populations increased at rates exceeding 10% annually. Today, the bald eagle population has grown to over 7000 pairs in the lower 48 states. In 1995, eagles were "downlisted" from endangered to threatened status.
Today biologists believe that bald eagles are secure enough to remove them entirely from the federal endangered species list - a real conservation success story. In February, 2006 the U. S. Fish and Wildlife issued an official proposal to delist the bald eagle. You can read all about our delisting plans and the amazing recovery of the bald eagle at a new bald eagle web site http://migratorybirds.fws.gov/BaldEagle.htm
Bald eagles in Maine increased from 29 pairs in 1962 to 385 pairs in 2005. This represents a growth rate of about 7-8% annually. Although impressive, eagle recovery in Maine still lags behind other regions. DDT takes much longer to break down in our cold, northern soils, and we still find traces in unhatched eggs. A healthy eagle population produces an average of one eaglet per active pair. Maine did not achieve that milestone until 1998, and even in recent years we often fail to meet that benchmark. Other contaminants, including mercury, PCBs, and dioxin are still of concern and likely depress productivity in some parts of the state. Despite the lower productivity, survival of young ealges is good and our eagle population continues to increase and expand to occupy their former habitat in northern, western, and southern Maine. At the time of European contact, Maine likely had more than 1000 pairs of eagles. We believe that we still have the habitat to support over 600 pairs of eagles, and the population will continue to grow. Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has met all of the state recovery goals for eagles, except one - to secure a "safety net" of 150 nesting areas in conservation ownership, easements, or cooperative agreements with landowners. Loss of waterfront habitat to development is a persistent threat that needs to be addressed if we are going to continue to support a vibrant population of eagles in Maine. The state is close to meeting its nesting conservation goal, and it is likely that Maine will remove the bald eagle from the state list in the near future.
What happens to a species after it is delisted? Do delisted species still get any protection or conservation funding? Both the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will continue bald eagle conservation efforts long after Charlie and I retire. Once the bald eagle is delisted the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA), passed in 1940, will provide a level of protection for eagles similar to that provided by the Endangered Species Act. The Eagle Act protects bald eagles from take, possession, or sale of a bald eagle or its nest. As part of our delisting proposal, the Service developed a definition for what it means to "disturb" a bald eagle in the BGEPA and issued draft national bald eagle nesting management guidelines. We are seeking public input on our delisting proposal and changes to the BGEPA. Comments from the public will be accepted until June 19 (see the web site above for all the details concerning the delisting proposal).
Also, after the eagle is federally delisted, the Service is committed to funding at least 5 years of population monitoring. Charlie and I have both participated in developing new eagle monitoring surveys that will ultimately be used to monitor the health of the eagle population in the lower 48 states for decades to come. If the eagle, or any other delisted species, begins to decline, we always have the option of placing it back on the endangered species list. With continued conservation we hope that populations continue to grow and the eagle will never need to be listed again.
There are many who deserve credit for the recovery of the eagle in Maine. We thank landowners who voluntarily (and sometimes adamantly) protect "their" eagle nest and sometimes make significant sacrifices to do so. The Maine Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and many other local land trusts have helped protect a "safety net" of eagle nest sites. The Land for Maine Futures Program and federal expansion of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge helped purchase many coastal eagle nesting islands. We owe a debt of thanks to Dr. Ray "Bucky" Owen, professor emeritus and former Department Chair at the University of Maine wildlife program, for advising a succession of graduate student research projects that helped to address the threats facing eagles in Maine. Federal biologist Frank Gramlich, who recently passed away, led Maine's early efforts to protect eagles, especially when populations were on the brink of extinction and threatened by a major oil refinery proposal on the coast of Maine. Perhaps more than anyone else, Charlie Todd, MDIFW eagle biologist, deserves much of the credit for recovery. Charlie came to Maine as Bucky's first eagle graduate student 29 years ago and has led Maine's eagle recovery ever since. Its rare that a biologist has the opportunity to participate in a species' recovery from the dark hours of listing to the success of recovery, but Charlie has been there to participate in recovery from beginning to end. Maine's bald eagle habitat protection program is nationally recognized and has struck a successful balance between protection and private land stewardship.
There are hundreds more to thank for the recovery of eagles in Maine, but the common thread in eagle delisting is that we can save wildlife from extinction if we all work together toward a common cause. Each of you has something to contribute to help endangered species, whether it is purchasing a conservation license plate, joining the local land trust, or communicating with your representatives in Congress about the importance of the Endangered Species Act.
Make endangered species a vivid presence in the lives of people. Make it clear that every endangered species has name, has a million-year history, has a place in the world. Bring us face-to- face with each of those species. Make us know that they are companions in the biosphere. They are not just something out there you look at once in a while, but they're part of our existence...they are part of us. E.O. Wilson
This is what we hope to accomplish in our careers as endangered species biologists. We hope this web site helps bring this conservation message home to you.
Mark McCollough, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service