In 1967, there were fewer than 500 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. The national bird was in danger of disappearing from much of the United States.
Though the eagles were never in danger of extinction—the vast majority, over 100,000, were in Alaska and Canada—Americans understandably wanted to protect a national symbol.
Today, the bald eagle is doing well. On June 29 the bald eagle in the lower 48 states will be officially removed, or delisted, from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Yet delisting the bald eagle from the ESA has been a decade-long process that shows how even the most well-intentioned policy can be overcome by politics and ulterior motives.
The bald eagle should have been delisted in the early-to-mid 1990s, when it surpassed the original goal of around 3,000 pairs in the lower 48 states. Since then, the population has continued to grow at the very healthy rate of about 8 percent annually, reaching at least 9,921 pairs in the contiguous U.S. this year. Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been unwilling to part with its best public relations tool, likely because it's also a powerful means to control land use.
Take the case of Ed Contoski, co-owner of 18 lakeshore acres in central Minnesota. To provide for his retirement, in 2004 Contoski decided to sell his property to family members. The only option for raising the $425,000 needed to purchase Ed's half-share was dividing the property's northern seven acres in to five residential lots and selling them. But authorities found a bald eagle nest on Contoski's property, development halted. Faced with the ESA's harsh penalties, $100,000 and/or one year in jail for harming an eagle or habitat, Ed had to abandon his plans.
To recover use of his land, Contoski sued the Interior Department for failing to delist the eagle. He won his case last year, forcing the federal government finally to set the eagle free of the ESA.
When the eagle is at last delisted, we'll likely hear it championed as an ESA success story. The reality is more complicated.
The National Audubon Society explains that, "nearly everyone agrees that the key to the eagle's resurgence—even more so than the Endangered Species Act—was the banning of the use of the insecticide DDT in this country in 1972." DDT led to pervasive reproductive failures in the birds, but it was also banned a year prior to the ESA's passage, suggesting there's more to the eagle's recovery than land use restrictions.
The ESA's ultimate purpose is to recover species to the point they no longer need protection, not to keep healthy species as wards of the federal government.
Even after they're delisted, eagles will still be covered by essentially all of the ESA's land-use controls because the federal government has transferred the controls to the Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act, a move of dubious legality that will likely prolong the problems of Ed Contoski and other landowners.
There are many landowners like Ed Contoski across the country. Most are proud to have rare species on their land. Tragically, the ESA has pitted land owner against bird. Quietly, many of these people who might otherwise relish having an eagle's nest or other endangered species on their land are taking steps to keep those species out, to avoid being clobbered by the government's harsh penalties.
"I've seen eagle's nests where people climbed up the trees and knocked them out," stated Jodi Millar, former federal bald eagle recovery coordinator.
With the bald eagle now safe, let's reform the Endangered Species Act to harness the goodwill of America's citizen conservationists. It's time for a new, more effective environmentalism based on cooperation and positive incentives, not conflict and punishment.
Brian Seasholes is the author of a forthcoming Reason Foundation study on bald eagle conservation.