Is the Bald Eagle Really Back?

It’s become an annual ritual. When the July 4th holiday rolls around, it’s time for the incumbent in the White House to showboat his environmental credentials. Back in the summer of 2000, Bill Clinton made a grand expedition over to the tidal basin in Washington, DC, where, with Bruce Babbitt by his side, the president mc’d a lavish ceremony announcing the removal of the bald eagle from the endangered species list.

“The American bald eagle is now back from the brink of extinction, thriving in virtually every state of the union,” President Clinton declared. “I can think of no better way to honor the birth of our nation than by celebrating the rebirth of our proudest living symbol.”

On the surface, the numbers were  impressive. In 1963, there were only 465 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the lower-forty-eight states, according to numbers supplied by the Fish and Wildlife Service. (This is figure almost certainly low, since much of the Mississippi delta and North Woods were not surveyed.) By 2000, the Service claims there may be as many as 12,000 eagles in the US. Of course, 5,000 breeding pairs is still a far cry from the 500,000 birds estimated to have lived in the continental US in the mid-1800s.

Typically, Bruce Babbitt used the occasion of the eagle’s delisting to tout his own insidious tinkering with the Endangered Species Act. “America was the first nation on earth to pass a comprehensive law protecting endangered species, the Endangered Species Act, and once again we have shown that this landmark law works,” Babbitt said. “Today the American bald eagle is back. The bald eagle joins a growing list of other once-imperiled species that are on the road to recovery.”

Of course, Babbitt neglected to mention that under his watch the grizzly bear, marbled murrelet, coho salmon, California gnatcatcher, and northern spotted owl have continued to slide ever closer toward extinction—mainly because he chose to cut deals with developers rather than enforce the law for the benefit of rare species.

But now a decade after the eagle’s delisting how is the national bird fairing, shorn of the protections of the ESA, forced to endure the depredations of the Bush administration and enervating new threats such as climate change, prolonged droughts and ceaseless raids on wintering habitat in the neotropics?

Bald Eagle and charred Ponderosa Pine, Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Photo JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

The bald eagle population has rebounded somewhat, largely due to the decision to ban the sale of DDT in the US, a move that was made when Clinton was still eligible for the draft. Since most eagles aren’t migratory, the fact that a loophole in the law allowed US chemical companies to continue dumping their toxic supplies across the developing world. Other raptors and migratory fish-eating birds haven’t been so fortunate. Witness the recent declines in osprey, marsh hawk, and black shouldered kite populations.

But even the comeback of the eagle is vastly overstated. After all, a species that has “recovered” to less than 2 percent of its natural population size should hardly be something to brag about. This is especially true because the bald eagle, unlike other imperiled species, has benefited from a wide range of special laws beyond the ESA, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. The big raptor has done well in the Great Lakes region, but remains in a perilous state throughout much of the interior West, where logging of old-growth riparian habitat, poisonous run-off from mining operations, and dewatering of streams has kept the eagle on the ropes. It’s the old story: where the issue is habitat, species continue to decline because the government, particularly the Clinton/Gore/Babbitt regime, does little to enforce the law when it conflicts with the economic interests of land developers and timber companies.

Take the eagles of Klamath Lake, in south-central Oregon. This marshy area on the Cascade Range’s eastern front used to be a haven for nesting and migrating eagles. Now the lakeshore is being mercilessly gobbled up by developers, and the bird’s numbers are dropping. Removing the eagle from the list makes it easier for big-time developers to carve even more deeply into the little old-growth that remains. A case in point is the mammoth ski/golf resort planned for Pelican Butte, adjacent to a bald eagle sanctuary. The developers have hired wildlife biologist Jack Ward Thomas, former chief of the Forest Service, to flack for them. With the eagle off the endangered species list, Thomas’ job just got much less complicated.

In Babbitt’s home ground, the desert Southwest, the situation is even more dire. The desert bald eagle is small and unique. The southwest hosts only about fifty breeding pairs, down from over 500 pairs at the turn of the century. These birds have keenly adapted to the smothering heat of the region by nesting in the winter. Fledglings leave the nest in the spring, much earlier than northern eagles, before the summer heat peaks. Even so, the fledgling mortality rate has been high in recent years and appears to be getting worse. In the past decade, more than 75 percent of the young desert eagles have died before they’ve reached four years old, the average breeding age.

On top of this, nesting eagles are raising fewer and fewer chicks. In 1998, for example, forty pairs of desert eagles produced twenty-three nestlings, for a nest productivity rating of 0.59. This is down from a nest productivity rating of 0.68 in 1997 and 0.85 in 1996.

The ecological threats to the desert eagles were mounting at the very moment Clinton and Babbitt, eager for an uplifting summer photo-op, moved to shred the legal protections for the national bird.  Now the situation is even more dire. Nearly 30 percent of the species’ habitat in Arizona is slated for development. “Only the Endangered Species Act mandates enforceable evaluation of these projects,” warns Dr. Robin Silver, of Phoenix-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. “Without the protection of the Endangered Species Act there will be nothing to stand between the desert eagle and extinction.”

This article is adapted from Born Under a Bad Sky.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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