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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 June 2007, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
US keeps eagle eye on national bird
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington

Bald eagle (file picture)
The bald eagle's population plummeted in the middle of the last century

Only decades after hovering on the brink of extinction, the bald eagle - the US national symbol - has been taken off the endangered and threatened species list.

From just 417 pairs in 1963, its population has climbed to an estimated 9,789 pairs in 2006 across the US, excluding Alaska and Hawaii.

"Today I am proud to announce: the eagle has returned," Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne said.

But while its recovery is widely welcomed as good news by Americans, controversy continues to surround its future legal protections.

At stake may be whether the bald eagle - whose outspread wings can be seen on US coins, dollar bills and official seals - or its human rivals win out in the fight for prized habitat on lake and river shores.

Changing attitudes

The growth in the bald eagle population in recent years is "a great conservation success story", says Mike Dalton, director of conservation policy for the Audubon Society, a wildlife group.

Wingspan of up to 8ft (2.4m)
Eats mainly fish
Lays one to three eggs a year
Made US symbol in 1782
Estimated 9,789 pairs in 2006

"People's attitudes have changed. The bald eagle has inspired a lot of people to take an interest in conservation," he says.

"The bald eagle's story itself is an encouraging one because it shows that dedicated effort and focused attention to a species can save it from the brink of extinction."

But that the bird was ever in such danger, despite having been the national symbol since 1782, demonstrates a need for legal protections of some kind, conservationists say.

As many as 500,000 are thought to have inhabited the US when European settlers first arrived.

But until the Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed in 1940, it was shot, poisoned and hunted across the country by landowners who believed it a threat to fish and crops, causing a drastic fall in its numbers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, widespread use of the pesticide DDT caused its population to drop still further, because it weakened the bird's eggshells so much that chicks could not be hatched out.

In 1967, with fewer than 500 pairs remaining, the bald eagle was put on the endangered species list. This meant people were banned from harming it, and that its habitat was protected. The use of DDT was banned soon after.

As a result, by 1999 numbers had soared to levels where former President Bill Clinton announced it was time to consider taking it off the threatened species list.

'Abused' landowners

What has angered many property owners affected by measures protecting bald eagle habitats is that it has taken eight years for the government to reach that point.

Minnesota landowner Edmund Contoski (picture courtesy of Mr Contoski)
Mr Contoski cannot build on his land because of a bald eagle nest

Among those landowners is Edmund Contoski, whose lawsuit - backed by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) - resulted in a court setting the 29 June deadline for the government to decide on the bird's status.

He wants to build five lakeside cabins on seven acres he owns in Minnesota - but has been prevented from doing so for several years because a bald eagle nest is in the area.

The PLF says the bird's removal from Endangered Species Act protection is vital because property owners are being "abused" by over-restrictive legislation that impedes their right to manage their property as they see fit.

This can have serious economic consequences, PLF staff attorney Damien Schiff points out.

Mr Contoski's land with the cabins would be worth more than $400,000 (200,000), Mr Schiff says. Without them it is worth "almost nothing".

Ongoing controversy?

Mr Schiff predicts that even though the bird has been taken off the endangered and threatened species list, the controversy is far from over.

Bald eagle
Conservationists say the public now realises the need to protect the bird

The PLF fears that recent modifications to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act - which now cover the bald eagle - mean it will impose almost as many restrictions on the use of land as the rules currently in place.

The debate is likely to hinge on what can be defined as "disturbing" bald eagles under the act.

Nicholas Throckmorton, spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says the body has issued guidelines to help people avoid falling foul of the law.

"If I slam my car door and make the eagle fly off for five minutes, did I disturb it? Yes. Did I harm it in any way? No. The guidelines are to make it clear when a 'disturbance' has been caused," he explains.

Al Cecere, president and founder of the Tennessee-based American Eagle Foundation, a conservation charity, says he is optimistic a compromise can be found with landowners.

"We've learned a lot since the 40s and 50s," he says.

"We've learned we must protect ecosystems - and if we can protect those ecosystems with co-operative land agreements with owners, I think we will continue to achieve a slow but significant recovery in eagle nests in our country."

There is still a lot of work to be done to complete the recovery of the eagle
Al Cecere
American Eagle Foundation

But Mr Cecere recognises that part of the problem is that bald eagles are in competition with people for highly sought-after tracts of land.

"We humans tend to recreate and live on many of the same lands that eagles prefer to nest on, mainly around large lakes and streams. And they require much more privacy to feel comfortable nesting and raising a family."

And he warns that much of the hard work is still to come, as government and volunteer conservation groups monitor eagle nests to ensure the change in status does not affect their numbers.

"We would still urge people to continue their vigilance. There is still a lot of work to be done to complete the recovery of the eagle," he says.

"It's going to require millions of dollars to support state, federal and private efforts to monitor eagle nests and protect habitat - and it's going to be up to the American people to be more involved."

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