Soaring Away From Extinction
CONCRETE, Wash. -- So many bald eagles swoop down from the treetops to pluck their breakfast from the Skagit River, you wouldn't think they were a threatened species....and to think Ben Franklin wanted the turkey for our national symbol.
Technically, they aren't. But because they're found in every one of the lower 48 states, it's taking the federal government longer than expected to get them reclassified — an initiative the Clinton administration pitched 4 1/2 years ago.
"It's like Pandora's box. It seems like a simple thing, but it's not when you start delving into it," said Cindy Hoffman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman in the agency's Washington, D.C., office.
Once the government says an animal is ready to be taken off the list, it usually takes about a year for it to happen. That's because most federally protected species inhabit relatively small areas, Hoffman said.
The bald eagle's territory, by comparison, stretches over much of the North American continent, with tens of thousands living in Alaska and British Columbia. The most recent survey in the contiguous United States counted nearly 6,500 nesting pairs in 2000 — up from just 417 in 1963.
Drafting a post-recovery plan for such a huge range requires updated counts in each state and directives that factor in eagle-protection rules certain states already have in place — rendering a one-size-fits-all transition impossible.
Despite its status as the nation's symbol, eagles were frequently shot and killed throughout most of the 1800s and early 1900s, in many cases by ranchers who complained the birds preyed on their sheep. Shoreline development and logging led to widespread habitat loss, and after World War II, use of DDT and other pesticides that weakened egg shells sent the bald eagle's birth rate plummeting.
The first move to protect the majestic birds came in 1940 with the federal Bald Eagle Protection act, later revised to include the golden eagle. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT, saying the bald eagle was teetering on the brink of extinction outside Alaska.
In 1978, Fish and Wildlife listed the bald eagle as endangered in 43 states and threatened in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. By 1995, the species had rebounded enough to be reclassified as threatened throughout the lower 48.
Every year from November to March, as many as 500 bald eagles flock south to the Skagit River Basin, drawn by spawning chum salmon. Several other Western Washington rivers lure impressive numbers of eagles, including the Sauk, Siuattle, Skykomish, Stillaguamish and Nooksack.
Wintering eagles spread far and wide — from northern California to Montana to Arizona — but no state hosts more of them year after year than Washington. Some stay year-round, but most migrate north to breed.[Nitpicker emphasis]