WASHINGTON – Bird lovers were hard pressed to find bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay area in 1977, but since then the national symbol has staged a startling comeback, even nesting beside the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge.
An extraordinary sevenfold increase in eagles nationwide has led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider removing the bird from the list of “threatened” species protected by the Endangered Species Act.
While local environmentalists are enthusiastic about the ninefold increase in eagles in the bay area, they worry that delisting could end the recovery. Without commenting specifically on the proposed regulations, they said they worry generally that delisting could sacrifice currently protected eagle habitats to developers.
Federal officials first proposed delisting the eagles in 1999, but backed off in the face of sharp public criticism from all sides of the issue.
Critics then said that taking the birds off the threatened list would make them subject to the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, said Paul Nickerson, a threatened and endangered species official for the service. Nickerson said that because the 1940 act has no provisions for allowing limited development, as the current law does, opponents feared it would be interpreted as an outright ban.
Officials hope to get around those fears with their latest proposal, which includes regulations to clarify the 1940 act to allow for development review, Nickerson said. The new proposal was sent to Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters for approval earlier this week, he said.
But environmentalists note that eagle habitats are only protected under the Endangered Species Act. Once the birds are taken off the list, their habitats will no longer be protected from developers, said Bill Portlock, a bald eagle researcher and an official with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Eagles prefer nesting in large trees along the coastline — prime real estate areas, said Ray Fernald, an official in the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Even though some habitat will remain, Fernald said, eagles are not tolerant of human activity and could be driven out by development.
But Virginia officials are not concerned about a change in federal status for the eagles because the birds would be protected under the commonwealth’s own Endangered Species Act, Fernald said.
No similar law exists in Maryland.
But Glen Therres, a bald eagle biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said eagles are becoming increasingly tolerant to human activities.
“By and large, the (eagle) population in the Chesapeake Bay area should be able to sustain itself in the foreseeable future,” Therres said.
Regardless, delisting will not happen any time soon, said Cindy Hoffman, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman. Even if the service approves the new proposals, she said, that must be followed by a period of public comment before they can take effect.
Nickerson said he remains hopeful that the process will be completed by 2003. In the meantime, he said, the eagle population continues to increase across the country.
Bald eagle populations plummeted in the late 1960s due to widespread use of DDT, a pesticide than ran off farmland and contaminated fish and other species that the birds eat. High concentrations of DDT in eagles caused them to produce brittle, fragile eggs, which would break easily.
DDT was banned in 1972 and the eagles were put on the endangered species list the following year. But their numbers continued to dwindle in the bay area, reaching an all-time low of 72 nesting pairs in 1977.
Once the pesticide began breaking down in the environment, the eagles began to rebound. Because of this, they were shifted from the endangered to the threatened species list in 1995.
Currently, the bay area contains about 650 nesting pairs of eagles with about 900 eaglets, according to data from Maryland’s DNR.