Why Bald Eagles Are No Longer Endangered

This U.S. national symbol is a conservation success story.

Perfect landing, bald eagle, Alaska
Bald eagles were one of the first species protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Feng Wei Photography / Getty Images

Once in danger of extinction due to hunting and pesticides, the bald eagle is now thriving throughout much of North America. One of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, America’s national symbol is now a conservation success story.

Here's how this iconic bird became endangered — and how it rebounded with the help of smart environmental measures.

History

It’s an often-told story that founding father Benjamin Franklin would have preferred a turkey rather than an eagle as the national symbol. However, the Franklin Institute explains that tale is mostly a myth. Instead, Franklin was writing to his daughter, criticizing the original eagle design on the national seal when he mentioned the turkey in passing as a more respectable bird.

Franklin had quite a few choice words for the bald eagle. He wrote that the “[b]ald eagle...is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.”

Others felt this powerful, plentiful bird was a good choice for a mascot. When the bald eagle was adopted as the U.S. national symbol in 1782, there were as many as 100,000 nesting birds in the continental U.S., including Alaska, according to the American Eagle Foundation.

Threats

But the eagle numbers did not stay abundant for long. Gradually the eagle population declined. They were threatened by hunters and pesticides until the bird was nearly wiped out in the U.S.

Hunting

Hunters often shot bald eagles for sport, for their feathers, or because they considered them a threat to livestock or the salmon they fished.

Alaskan fox farmers and salmon industry workers claimed that eagles were preying on their animals, affecting their livelihood. In response, the Alaska Territorial Legislature imposed a bounty on eagles in 1917, reports the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Their claims were later discredited, but the bounties led to the killing of a confirmed 120,195 eagles. No doubt many others were killed without bounties.

The bounty wasn’t removed until 1953. Bald eagles came under the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act when Alaska became a state in 1959. The act prohibits anyone to possess eagles or any of their parts, including feathers.

Pesticides

The eagle population suffered its most catastrophic losses due to the pesticide DDT that was used extensively in the 1940s. The chemicals run off crops and into waterways where they collect in fish, which make up most of an eagle’s meals, says National Geographic

When the DDT is absorbed into a female eagle’s bloodstream, it causes her to create eggs with thin, weak shells. Those eggs break easily, rarely surviving. Because the babies don’t make it to adulthood, the cycle limited the eagles’ ability to reproduce.

Bald Eagle, nesting
DDT caused eagles to create eggs with thin shells, impacting their ability to reproduce. Mark Newman / Getty Images

Hunting and DDT had an enormous impact on the bald eagle population. By the mid-1960s, only 417 nesting pairs were found in the lower 48 states.

The government began regulating the use of DDT in the late 1950s and 1960s because of “mounting evidence of the pesticide's declining benefits and environmental and toxicological effects,” reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring" is credited with raising the alarm about DDT. In 1972, the EPA banned the use of DDT in agriculture.

How to Support Bald Eagles

With the DDT ban, government protections, and the growth of captive breeding programs, eagle numbers have rebounded. In June 2007, the bird was removed from the Endangered Species List. The bald eagle is listed as “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List with numbers increasing.

But that doesn’t mean the bald eagle doesn’t still need protection. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the bald eagle faces threats from lead poisoning when they consume prey that contains hunter ammunition. They often get into collisions with vehicles and structures, and they face habitat destruction from development. They are also vulnerable to environmental pollution and wind turbines.

Defenders of Wildlife suggests organizing clean-ups of eagle habitats, encouraging hunters to use lead-free ammunition, and promoting technology that keeps birds from turbines.

To continue conservation efforts, you can symbolically adopt an eagle through the National Wildlife Federation or donate to the American Eagle Foundation.