With a seven-foot wingspan, a dazzling white head and elegant black wings that beat oh-so-sedately as the bird makes its way through the air, a bald eagle sighting is a soul-stirring moment. This bird is not in a hurry — why should it be? It lords over everything else in the sky, as well as much that beats a hasty retreat on the land and water below.
For many of us who were around in the 1960s and 1970s, a bald eagle was a sight unlikely to be seen in our lifetime. The federal law meant to protect the bird and its close relation, the golden eagle — called the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, passed in the 1940s — wasn’t successful. In the 1960s there were fewer than 500 mating pairs of bald eagles left in the entire lower 48 states. In 1972, only 29 pairs of bald eagles remained in Maine, sad remnants of a once robust population almost killed off by chemical contaminants and destruction of crucial nesting areas. What happened in Maine was an echo of the rest of the country, where the regal bird — adopted during the revolutionary era as the country’s symbol on the national seal — had been driven to the brink of extinction.
Enter the federal Endangered Species Act, passed by Congress in 1973. In recognition of its imperiled status, the bald eagle was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1978; it was named to Maine’s state endangered list the same year. Those listings meant that a suite of different measures were taken to protect and rebuild eagle populations, from conservation of nesting sites to reduction and banning of chemical use to reintroduction projects.
During the last almost 30 years, the bald eagle has emerged as the poster child for the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act. Restoration of eagle populations across the country has been so successful — the feds estimate that there are now more than 7,000 nesting pairs in the U.S. — that both environmental groups and the federal government are in agreement that it should be taken off the list.
But therein lies the problem … a problem summarized in one single troublesome word: disturb. Here’s why: If the bald eagle is removed from the endangered list, then the major federal law that remains to protect it is the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. That legislation prohibits killing, selling and harming eagles or their eggs. It also decrees it illegal to “disturb” an eagle or its nest — but, crucially, there is no definition of what the word “disturb” means. When the federal Endangered Species Act was passed, its strong protections superseded the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, so this signal weakness in the latter act was ignored.
But as they contemplated removing the bald eagle from the act’s protections, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized that without a definition for “disturb,” the newly restored eagle populations could be at risk — despite state laws that would also protect the birds. So the Bush administration proposed defining the word to mean “to agitate or bother a bald or golden eagle to the degree that causes injury or death to an eagle (including chicks or eggs) due to interference with breeding, feeding or sheltering behavior.”>/p>
Unfortunately, that’s not the definition that top biologists at the Fish and Wildlife agency wanted. According to internal documents unearthed by National Public Radio, they believed that the administration’s definition would be very difficult to enforce “without evidence of a dead or injured eagle.” In other words, until you kill or hurt the bird, you’re on safe ground — and the proposed definition doesn’t really protect the birds from potentially deadly disturbance.
So, in defiance of the administration position, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall proposed a tighter, more protective definition. But in a classic case of politics trumping science, Interior Department officials have so far stuck to their guns and their definition. It’s easier to permit development near eagle’s nests with their definition of “disturb.”
If the feds fail to adopt a strong and protective definition for “disturb,” the effect in Maine will likely be indirect, but still could be significant.
Maine has listed the bald eagle as “threatened” and has spent decades working to restore populations by protecting the habitat the eagle needs to successfully nest and breed. Maine wildlife officials say they won’t recommend taking the state’s birds off of the list (which would require a vote of the Legislature) until the state has secured long-term protection for 150 nesting sites. Right now, only 90 sites have been protected out of 290 around the state. But as one state biologist said, wildlife officials have been able to ensure that protection because, when negotiating for protection with landowners on whose property the nests are sited, they’ve had the big stick of federal law behind them.
Maine has one of the largest bald eagle populations of the lower 48 states. The birds have become a magnificent fact of life along our rivers, lakes, above our fields and in our towering pines.
We encourage state officials and our congressional delegation to do everything they can to ensure that the federal government lives up to its obligation to use proper science, defer to the expertise of its agencies and adequately protect this great symbol of our country.