My children don't remember when bald eagles were rare. Like children will, they sometimes roll their eyes or sigh when I get excited about eagles today. When my middle son counted bald eagles and crows on a peregrine survey last March, he counted many more eagles than crows. They soared over Lake Pepin, perched on trees, sat on rapidly melting ice, and kettled over bluffs, driving the local peregrine falcons crazy. I pointed out how fortunate we were to watch one formerly endangered species duking it out with another on a sunny spring day: a moment that very nearly didn't happen since both species were perched on the brink of extinction just fifty years ago.
Persecution, habitat loss, and the pesticide DDT nearly wiped eagles and falcons out. From a population of hundreds of thousands, bald eagles were whittled down to 412 breeding pairs by the 1950s. The peregrine falcon declined even more precipitously. By 1970, the peregrine was extinct east of the Mississippi and there were only 39 breeding pairs left in the lower 48 states, period. What was going on? Researchers found that the widely used pesticide DDT was causing bald eagles and peregrine falcons to lay eggs so thin that they cracked under the weight of incubating parents.
While eagles were already protected by the Lacey Act, the Migratory Bird Treat Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Act (read about them here), it was clear that more was needed to save the eagle from extinction. The newly created Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972 (read more about that here) and Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The Act was signed into law by President Nixon on December 28, 1973. I was seven years old and had never seen a wild bald eagle or peregrine falcon despite living and vacationing in what was once prime territory for both of them. I can't stress this enough: they were gone.
As Trip Van Noppen points out in his article on the subject, "Because of the act, today’s children are able to experience not only bald eagles but also orcas, alligators, condors, grizzly bears and myriad other creatures as living, breathing parts of our natural heritage — not as dusty museum specimens." While my children don't always appreciate bald eagles, they live in a world where eagles and falcons are a common sight. This wasn't the result of luck or accident, but rather the result of hard work, determination, and a great deal of personal courage on the part of people like Rachel Carson and Joseph Hickey. We celebrate bald eagles as a symbol of our national freedom, but they also symbolize the commitment we made back in 1973 to preserve wild life and wild lands.
- A few members of Congress are interested in repealing the Endangered Species Act. The American Bird Conservancy has an article about that here: https://abcbirds.org/endangered-species-act-facing-own-extinction/.
- The Center for Biological Diversity has a report outlining the stunning successes of the Endangered Species Act here: http://www.esasuccess.org/2016/index.html
- Once DDT was banned and the Endangered Species Act put some real teeth into enforcement, bald eagle populations recovered largely on their own...but peregrines did not. Our founder Bob Anderson was deeply involved in the peregrine recovery effort. A little of that story can be read here: https://www.raptorresource.org/about-us/remembering-bob-anderson/ and here: http://www.raptorresource.org/pdf/mnbirding.pdf. We can't let the good work that he and so many others did go to waste! We will keep everyone posted on any effort to repeal the Environmental Species Act.