How our nation’s symbol soared back from the brink

The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America. But as latter-day citizens we shall fail our trust if we permit the eagle to disappear. — President John F. Kennedy

Following the enactment of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the bald eagle was listed as “endangered” throughout the lower 48 states, with the exception of five states where it was designated as “threatened.” Minnesota now has the largest numbers of nesting eagle pairs in lower 48 states. (Photo Credit: Bob Jensen)

In 1782, the bald eagle was officially declared the national symbol of the United States. It became the icon that evoked patriotism – a feeling of strength and power, of independence and courage. At the time, the population was at an estimated 100,000 birds.

In the 20th century, the population of bald eagles fell to dangerously low levels, leading to fears of extinction. Fortunately, decades of recovery efforts brought the species back from the brink – a testament to the meaningful milestones that can be achieved through effective conservation.

How we almost lost the bald eagle

A combination of wanton killing, habitat degradation and use of the pesticide DDT decimated the bald eagle population. The decline likely began as early as the late 1800s, as both eagle prey and eagles were hunted for the feather trade. By 1960, there were only 400 nesting pairs left in the lower 48.

The first eagle protections came from the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, which prohibited the killing or selling of bald eagles. Despite this, populations continued to fall due to the widespread use of DDT in the 1940s and beyond – the pesticide often ending up in rivers, streams and lakes, and accumulating in fish tissue. Birds that fed on these fish laid eggs with such thin shells that they cracked during nesting. The bald eagle is a symbol of majestic power and unparalleled strength. We have the ESA to thank for that. Share on X

In 1967, the bald eagle was listed as “endangered” under the predecessor to the Endangered Species Act – the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. The bald eagle was one of the first species to be officially listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it was signed in 1973.

The bald eagle has never been listed as threatened or endangered in Alaska; populations there have remained stable. (Photo Credit: John Carrel)

The ESA helped save the eagle

The 1972 ban on DDT (one of EDF’s signature accomplishments) made the eagle’s recovery possible. That recovery was greatly accelerated by a combination of regulatory restrictions, nesting site protections, and reintroduction programs, which together contributed to a dramatic turnaround for bald eagle populations.

The ESA was a critical driver of all of these efforts, many of which also supported recovery of other at-risk wildlife like the peregrine falcon and brown pelican. The bedrock conservation law served to both bring public awareness to the bald eagle’s plight and to recover populations.

In 1995, the bald eagle’s status was reduced from “endangered” to “threatened,” with an estimated 4,700 nesting pairs occurring in the lower 48 states. A little over a decade later, in 2007, the species was delisted with an estimated 10,000 nesting pairs.

In 40 years, the bird saw a 25-fold increase in its population.

The ESA helped save the most iconic bird in the United States. The act provided the critical law enforcement needed in order to protect the bird across its vast range. Today, the bald eagle is once again a symbol of majestic power and unparalleled strength. We have the ESA to thank for that.

Michael Bean started working at EDF in 1977 directing wildlife conservation policy initiatives. In 2009, Michael joined the U.S. Department of the Interior as counselor to the Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and later as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary. Today, Michael is back as an advisor to EDF.


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  1. TrudyS
    Posted August 3, 2017 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Research I’ve read shows that the problem with thinning eggshells related to a lack of calcium in the shells of tested birds. DDT is not the underlying cause of endangering bald eagles! DDT was erroneously removed from use due to misguided studies, that have since been disproved. Consider this article, with good solid documentation: [DDT: The Bald Eagle Lie, By: Steven Milloy, July 07, 2006.]

  2. Aline Corry
    Posted August 7, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Endangered animals must be protected. There is no excuse to allowing animals to disappear.