On June 28 of this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would remove the bald eagle from the threatened list. Bald eagles now number 11,040 pairs in the continental U.S. – and they have returned to every state and the District of Columbia. Colorado has 65 pairs.
There were an estimated half-a-million bald eagles when the Pilgrims arrived, and the bird was adopted as the national symbol in 1782. However, bald eagles were unfairly branded vermin and a threat to livestock – as well as valued for their feathers. They were fed to hogs in Maine, shot from airplanes in California, poisoned in South Dakota and hunted under a 50-cent bounty in Alaska where 100,000 eagles were killed between 1917 and 1950.
The 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act prohibited the taking, possession or commerce of eagles. But their habitat continued to be logged, plowed and converted to farmland and housing. Eagles were extirpated from many states long before the pesticide DDT became prevalent. DDT dealt the final blow, thinning their eggshells and that of other fish-eating birds, causing their eggs to break during incubation. By 1963 there were only 417 pairs in the lower 48 states. Their habitat finally received protection with the 1967 Endangered Species Act. The listing of bald eagles, Peregrine falcons and brown pelicans was a major factor in the decision to ban DDT in 1972.
Bald eagles commonly nested in and around Rocky Mountain National Park as late as the 1950s. By 1974, just one pair remained in the state. The population remained perilously low through the 1970s and 1980s, began growing in 1986 and reached a peak of approximately 65 pairs in 2006. One-third of Colorado's nesting bald eagles live east of the Continental Divide in the South Platte River watershed. Other breeding concentrations include the Yampa River upstream of Craig, the White River in the vicinity of Meeker, the Colorado River upstream of Kremmling, and La Plata and Montezuma counties.
As Colorado celebrates the bald eagle’s success, it is worth noting the other species in the state that the Endangered Species Act is rescuing. The whooping crane once ranged from Utah to Florida and the Arctic Circle to central Mexico. It declined to 54 birds due to hunting and habitat destruction, but the listing increased to 513 (145 captive) by 2006. Black-footed ferrets once numbered as many as 5.6 million but declined as their prey, the prairie dog, was poisoned, and its burrows destroyed. They were thought extinct by 1980, but reintroductions from a single discovered population in Wyoming have grown to 400 ferrets in six states and 400 in captivity. Mining pollution, dewatering of streams and non-native competition decimated runs of Greenback cutthroat trout. Nine populations have been multiplied to 23 self-sustaining populations in Colorado. The Arctic and American Peregrine falcon similarly rebounded from the ban on DDT and were delisted in 1994 and 1999, respectively.
Each of these unique and irreplaceable creatures, thanks to the Endangered Species Act, may yet have a chance.
Hodges is the Biodiversity Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit conservation organization with 35,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.