(Beyond Pesticides, June 29, 2007) On June 28, 2007, forty years after it received protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and thirty-five years after the banning of DDT in the U.S., the bald eagle was removed from the ESA’s “threatened” list. Bald eagle populations declined dramatically in the last century, attributed mostly to the accumulation of the pesticide DDT in fish, a staple of the eagle’s diet. The pesticide gradually poisoned females, causing them to produce thinly-shelled eggs that broke easily, preventing the embryos from growing. Years of hunting, accidental poisoning and habitat loss took an additional toll.
“The rescue of the bald eagle from the brink of extinction ranks among the greatest victories of American conservation.” said John Flicker, President of the National Audubon Society. “Like no other species, the bald eagle showed us all that environmental stewardship has priceless rewards. In every state, parents and grandparents can still point to the sky and share a moment of wonder as a bald eagle soars overhead.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1967 listed the bald eagle as endangered, a designation that gave the bird legal protection from harmful human activities and in 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most uses of DDT (although it remains a contaminant of the pesticide dicofol, which is still used today). Listing the bald eagle afforded greater protection for important habitat, and saw the beginning of intensive monitoring and management of bald eagle populations in the wild as well as introduction of eagles from Alaska, Wisconsin, and other states to areas of the country where they had disappeared.
By the mid-90’s, the eagle was well on the road to recovery and the FWS “downlisted” the bald eagle from endangered to threatened in most states under ESA. Today, the FWS estimates there are over 7,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the continental U.S.
After delisting, the bald eagle will remain under federal protection largely through the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, as well as a patchwork of state laws. However, Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity worries that without habitat protection, developers will move into critical bald eagle areas, push the birds out and reduce their numbers. Mr. Suckling believes the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act will help protect the birds, but fails to protect their habitat. He offers 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.’ “
ESA plays an important role in the regulation of pesticides. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) alone does not adequately protect endangered species. EPA interprets FIFRA to require balancing the profits from using a pesticide against the dollar value of harm caused by that pesticide, without adequately considering alternative products and techniques. ESA, on the other hand, recognizes what almost all Americans believe — that no dollar amount can be placed on the extinction of our nation’s wildlife. While happy about the success of the bald eagle, pesticide activists are cautious because as species are removed from the endangered species list, it opens the door for greater pesticide use in or near the habitat of once-listed species.
ESA remains a target of pro-development and chemical company interests, as well as the Bush administration. Conservation groups say the administration will introduce regulations soon that would weaken the ESA’s ability to protect species and their habitat. Such an effort would follow years of attacks on the ESA prior to the change in Congressional leadership in 2007, including several proposals allowing FIFRA to trump ESA.
According to the National Audubon Society, the eagle’s success is not a trend shared by bird populations nationwide. A recent analysis on common birds in decline conducted by Audubon found the average population of the common birds in steepest decline had fallen by 68 percent; and some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their populations in just four decades.
The historic announcement of the bald eagle’s delisting comes during a controversial period in which some figureheads are encouraging the international use of DDT as an indoor treatment for malaria control. While DDT is best known for its impacts on wildlife, DDT also poses great risks to humans, including cancer, developmental and endocrine disrupting effects.