It is fitting that the bald eagle is the first species to be removed from the state’s list of threatened plants and animals. The eagle is a powerful symbol, but also now serves as a symbol of the success of the state and federal endangered species protections, as well as its shortcomings.
The Endangered Species Act works slowly and is often bogged down by lawsuits. Weakening its protections won’t solve these problems or protect endangered plants and animals. Streamlining it and ensuring government reviews are done in a timely manner will.
The removal of the eagle from the federal and state list shows that required protections can work.
Bald eagles were once so numerous that farmers routinely killed them to feed to their livestock and some locales offered a bounty for dead birds. By the early 1970s, the numbers had shrunk to just over 400 nesting pairs outside Alaska and fewer than two dozen in Maine.
The near extinction of the birds spurred Congress to pass the act in 1973. Although the birds were protected under federal law as early as 1940, it was not until the pesticide DDT, which caused eagle eggs to have thin shells which were crushed when adults sat on them during incubation, was banned and eagle habitat protected, that the population began to grow.
Now there are more than 10,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states and the birds were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007.
To rebuild the Maine population, wildlife officials transplanted eggs and relocated eaglets from Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are expected to surpass 500 breeding pairs in Maine this year, with birds in every county.
On Tuesday, Gov. John Baldacci signed a law removing them from the state list. The birds will remain protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits anyone from killing eagles, destroying nests or disturbing the birds to a degree likely to injure the animal, reduce productivity or cause nest abandonment. Violators also could face charges under Maine’s wildlife laws for killing a nongame species.
State biologists will continue to monitor eagle populations, and review some development projects around their nests, although not as extensively.
Recent proposals in Congress have sought to eliminate habitat protections and the required inter-agency consultations for endangered species. The eagle experience shows that simply outlawing the killing of an endangered animal is not enough to rebuild its population; the animals need a place to live and breed. It also shows that requirements such as the Environmental Protection Agency consulting with wildlife agencies before approving a pesticide for use remain necessary.
The Endangered Species Act is far from perfect, but the eagle experience shows it works.