WASHINGTON The bald eagle, the U.S. national bird whose numbers dwindled in the 1960s, is expected to be removed on Thursday from the list of creatures classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The "de-listing," if it happens as conservationists predict, would be a recognition of remarkable efforts to bring the bald eagle back from the brink, including the banning of the pesticide DDT in the United States.
"It is a man-on-the-moon moment for wildlife," said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist with the non-governmental National Wildlife Federation. He credited the 1973 Endangered Species Act for saving the bird.
"This is a great conservation success story, one that shows the Endangered Species Act really works," said Michael Daulton of the National Audubon Society. "In addition to being our national symbol, the bald eagle is now a symbol of environmental stewardship as well."
Around Washington, D.C., the bald eagle appears on the Great Seal of the United States, as well as official seals at the White House, Pentagon and State Department, in a marble sculpture at the Federal Reserve, as a mascot for the Washington Nationals baseball team and on U.S. coins and paper money.
Ubiquitous as an emblem, the number of actual birds dropped to just 417 nesting pairs in the contiguous 48 states by 1963, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This was despite federal protection for the bird that started in 1940 and continued with an official designation of endangerment in 1967, even before the Endangered Species Act became law.
DON'T DISTURB THE BIRD!
The current number of nesting pairs is at least 9,789, the wildlife service said on its Web site, crediting efforts by federal, state and local governments, conservation groups, corporations, native tribes and American individuals.
Bald eagles, native to most of North America, are now present in 49 states. They were never endangered or threatened in Alaska and are still present there; they are not tropical birds and never were present in Hawaii.
From 1967 to 2006, bald eagle sightings increased nine-fold, with the most dramatic increases in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Vermont and Michigan, according to the National Audubon Society.
A key reason for the bald eagle's decline was the pesticide DDT, which persists in the food chain and had the effect of thinning the birds' eggshells, making them so fragile that they cracked when eagles were incubating them, hurting the creatures' ability to reproduce. DDT was banned in 1972.
Another reason was loss of habitat and the killing of bald eagles by those who feared they were attacking young livestock, Inkley said.
The bird's removal from the endangered species list -- it was designated as threatened in 1995, a less severe status than endangered -- would not leave the bald eagle unprotected.
Federal law prohibits killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests or eggs. Bald eagles may not be disturbed, which means they may not be agitated or bothered to a degree that they are injured or that their normal breeding, feeding and sheltering behavior are substantially interfered with.
Its depiction on the U.S. Great Seal gained the bald eagle unofficial recognition as the national bird on June 20, 1782, over the objections of Benjamin Franklin, who said it had a "bad moral character" -- he preferred the turkey. The bald eagle became the official national bird in 1789.