Eagles on the mend, but recovery far from complete

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2000

LORTON, Va. (AP) -- Joe Witt pointed excitedly as a bald eagle swooped out of the trees and looped over Mount Vernon, the Potomac River estate of George Washington.

''Look at that,'' said Witt, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist. ''That's beautiful.''

Such sightings are becoming more common as eagles rebound around Chesapeake Bay and across the country after near extinction. Preservation efforts that began in the 1970s have helped, but the bird is not all the way back. Not yet.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to remove the bird from the endangered species list. A decision was expected to coincide with this year's Fourth of July, but it was delayed while the agency figures out how it would manage the species once it is taken off the list.

Some biologists fear removing the bald eagle from the Endangered Species Act, where it has been listed since 1973, will doom the national symbol. There is concern that the habitat of the fierce raptor will shrink and the eagle population will decline again. In Chesapeake Bay, the primary threat is waterfront development.

''It's a simple real estate issue,'' said Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. ''The eagles are very sensitive. They just don't mix with humans well.''

The effects of development are obvious along the Potomac. Where mansions, docks and boats crowd the shoreline, there are no eagles. On undeveloped stretches, eagles roost in the trees and dive for fish.

''The eagles are recovering,'' Witt said. ''Are they recovered? Well, that's where you get all the arguments.''

When the Continental Congress placed the bald eagle in the center of the Great Seal of the United States in 1782, there were as many as a half-million eagles in North America.

By 1963, there were fewer than 500 breeding pairs in the Lower 48 states as a result of hunting, loss of prey and habitat and widespread use of DDT, a pesticide that made females lay brittle eggs.

Bald eagles declined to the point where only Alaska was deemed to have a healthy population. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, beginning the recovery, but a generation of Americans grew up with the notion that bald eagles might vanish.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the eagle was classified as ''endangered'' -- or on the brink of extinction -- throughout most of the Lower 48 states. In 1995, the eagle was downgraded to ''threatened.''

In the past two decades, the bald eagle has rebounded -- there are 6,000 breeding pairs today, according to federal estimates.

The eagle population in the Chesapeake Bay region has increased from 80 to 90 breeding pairs in 1970 to about 600 pairs today, including 73 pairs and 106 chicks along the Potomac.

The eagles roost in the highest trees where they can survey great lengths of the river for signs of danger or food. In the spring and summer, when juveniles are still in the nests, the eagles are fiercely territorial and will chase out osprey or other eagles that roam too close.

Relaxed federal protection is being considered for other high-profile species, such as the grizzly bears of Yellowstone National Park and the gray wolf. Fewer than 30 species have ever been completely removed from the Endangered Species Act, including the American alligator and peregrine falcon.

And now perhaps the bald eagle.

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Editors: Associated Press Writer Sonja Barisic in Norfolk contributed to this report.

On the Net:

Center for Conservation Biology: http://www.wm.edu/biology/ConsCenter.html

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species: http://endangered.fws.gov/wildlife.html



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