Since the age of 5, my son has been able to identify a bald eagle when one perches or flies near our house in Maine.
Forty years ago, this would not have been the case, as Maine’s population had declined to only 30 nesting pairs. When the bald eagle was removed from Endangered Species Act protection in 2007, there were hundreds of pairs nesting in our state.
Our diverse and beautiful landscape makes Maine a wonderful place for seeing and hearing some of our nation’s most iconic birds. It’s not just the bald eagle that flies proudly over our state. Maine is home to more than 400 species of birds — Atlantic puffins and roseate terns off our shores, scarlet tanagers, olive-sided flycatchers and rusty blackbirds in our woods, and common loons and belted kingfishers in our lakes.
Our diverse bird populations, however, face major threats from unchecked development, a rapidly changing climate, and habitat loss and degradation. We must rely on federal protections like the Endangered Species Act as a critical lifeline to save our birds from extinction. But now the act faces attacks in Congress that threatens Maine’s birds and other wildlife.
Over time, the Endangered Species Act has prevented more than 99 percent of listed species from going extinct. An analysis from the American Bird Conservancy shows that more than 70 percent of the 96 bird species protected by the act are increasing, stable or have been delisted due to recovery.
Our national symbol, the bald eagle, is the perfect case study for the Endangered Species Act’s success. The bird was chosen as our national symbol for its long life, great strength and majestic looks.
But in the early and middle 20th century, eagle populations fell into such steep decline that a 1930 issue of Popular Science said the birds would soon “be seen only on coins and the coat of arms of the United States unless drastic action” saved them. The decline was primarily due to widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which accumulated in eagles and caused them to lay eggs with weakened shells.
Drastic action came in the form of federal protection. The bald eagle was one of the primary species listed under the Endangered Species Act when it passed in 1973. Restoration efforts were so effective that in 2007 the bird qualified to be removed from the endangered species list, and numbers continue to climb. Counters found more than 30,000 birds in the U.S. in 2015, more than double the 1995 count.
The successful restoration of the bald eagle — and species like the brown pelican, California condor and whooping crane — shows us that it’s possible to improve the health of bird populations. But it won’t happen on its own. We share Maine and our planet with a diverse and wonderful array of plants and animals, and we have a responsibility to protect them. If these bird populations disappear, there’s no bringing them back.
That’s why we need Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King to protect the Endangered Species Act, and oppose efforts in Congress to dismantle or alter its successful protection provisions.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is attempting to drastically weaken the Endangered Species Act. His bill — and others like it — would completely decimate the integrity of the act. It would do away with the science-based listing process and leave members of Congress in charge of making decisions about which species should be listed as threatened or endangered. This move inappropriately injects politics into decisions that should be based on biology, threatening our ability to conserve these species.
These attempts follow the trend of the Trump administration and his allies in Congress dismantling our environmental protections despite the harmful effects on our health and environment, simply to cater to corporate profits.
I want my son to not only be able to see and identify the bald eagle, but also to be able to watch a majestic California condor soaring over the redwood forests or see a family of tall, snowy white whooping cranes searching the central Texas saltmarshes for crabs.
That’s why I urge Collins and King to protect the Endangered Species Act and oppose efforts to alter or dismantle protections for our wildlife.
Dr. Jeff Wells is an ornithologist from Gardiner. He is the author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk” and co-author of “Maine’s Favorite Birds,” among other publications. He is a research associate of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in New York.
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