No bird is more iconic to Americans’ sense of national identity and pride than the bald eagle. This majestic creature was chosen by the Continental Congress in 1782 to symbolize the United States because of its strength and longevity. A bird that lives on the tops of mountains and swoops through boundless spaces, it appears on the Great Seal of the United States and represents the freedom the Founding Fathers saw at the heart of our democracy.
Yet less than 200 later, nesting pairs of bald eagles had dropped from the several hundred thousand thought to be alive during the Revolutionary Era to just 480 by the 1960s. Many factors played a role: illegal shooting, oil and lead poisoning, habitat destruction. But above all, indiscriminate use of the insecticide DDT after World War II dramatically reduced the bald eagle population and threatened this magnificent species that inspired our national emblem.
While DDT did not kill living eagles, it interfered with their ability to reproduce. Many females became sterile, and many others that weren’t sterile laid eggs with shells too thin to support the weight of nesting adults. Although DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972 and the birds were protected by several laws, including the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, they would not be able to rebuild their population until DDT had been eliminated from their food chain. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and by 1978, the bald eagle was listed as either threatened or endangered throughout its territory in the United States.
Fortunately, although it’s been a long and difficult recovery, the bald eagle has made a comeback. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the species, and by 2012 nesting pairs were numbering around 14,000.
It is important, however, not to define the success of the ESA only by those species, like the bald eagle, that have been delisted but also by the many, many other species that have made significant progress—and continue to progress—towards their recovery goals. A new report by the Endangered Species Coalition (ESC), of which UCS is a member, explains that success is a long-term and often challenging process but a process with many milestones worth celebrating along the way.
The southern sea otter is a good example of why we should view recovery from endangered status as a long-term process and how the ESA helps animals struggling to survive against both old and new obstacles. Living in the shallow waters along California’s central and southern coastline, the southern sea otter was once hunted almost out of existence for its beautiful coat. By the early 1900s, sea otter numbers had dropped from hundreds of thousands at the time when they became a staple of the fur trade during the mid-1700s to just 50 individuals.
Protected first under the Fur Seal Treaty of 1911 and later through the ESA, otters have made considerable progress, with a current population estimated around 2,800 individuals. Yet although they are no longer hunted for their fur, otters today face a whole new set of survival challenges. They can become trapped in fishing nets, and their food sources (mollusks, sea urchins, crabs, and other shellfish) are becoming scarcer due to ocean acidification. Oil spills, shooting, and shark attacks also threaten their still fragile existence.
For all these reasons, sea otters are still listed as threatened. Nonetheless, their rebound since they were listed as endangered in 1977—a remarkable 5,500 percent!—is a major victory. And despite the new challenges otters face, the prognosis for their full recovery and eventual delisting is good. Along with the other species highlighted in the new ESC report, sea otters’ impressive progress, no less than the full recovery of the bald eagle, is attributable to the Endangered Species Act.
Science with teeth and talons
The ESA has been effective over the years because its protections are science-based. That is, if the science says certain things about the status of a species, particular actions must be taken. When listing a species as endangered or threatened and designating its habitat as critical, regulators use established criteria and make determinations “solely on the basis of the best scientific … data available.” And there are penalties, both civil and criminal, for violators of the law.
Given the importance of freedom to our national identity, however, it is understandable that some individuals and companies may resent restrictions on their activities imposed through the ESA in order to protect what they perceive to be something as insignificant as freshwater mussels. Recent attempts by opponents to weaken the ESA have included provisions to a House appropriations bill that would prohibit researching endangered species on private property, prevent new limits on the use of federal land for fishing and hunting, and exclude the greater sage grouse from endangered species protection.
According to the ESC report, some opponents are even trying to redefine the law’s success to mean only those species that have achieved full recovery goals and been delisted. By redefining success in this way, opponents of the ESA seek to make the public believe the law has been less effective at protecting species than it actually has been.
However, with freedom comes responsibility—in this case, the responsibility to make decisions based on the best available science rather than private interests. If the story of the bald eagle teaches us anything, it is that our wildlife is not only part of our ecosystem but also a vital part of our national heritage. And it is vulnerable. As the Endangered Species Act celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, we should celebrate the many stories of progress and recovery brought about through its reliance on science.