Bald Eagles – A Conservation Success Story

Bald Eagles were a rare sight when I was growing up. Occasionally, one would make an appearance during the migration season. It would be the highlight of my month. Now, Bald Eagles are frequently seen and there are several nests in my vicinity. What a change!

In colonial times, bald meant white as well as hairless. Therefore, even though the Bald Eagle has a fully feathered head, it was called bald because of its white head feathers. Sony a1 + 100-400mm lens @ 400mm, ISO 640, f/5.6, 1/3200. ©Stanley Buman. Kenai Peninsula, AK

The Bald Eagle population plummeted for multiple reasons including habitat loss, being shot, and pesticide poisoning. One pesticide that was extremely harmful is DDT, an insecticide used to combat crop pests as well as insects carrying human diseases such as malaria and typhus. An unfortunate side-effect of DDT was the thinning of egg shells, especially in birds of prey (birds higher up in the food chain). As a result, hatching success plummeted. What caused the population to rebound?

Bald Eagles love to feed on fish but they are also scavengers, feeding on dead animals. This adult had been feeding on a deer carcass along the highway. Sony a1 + 600mm lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/640. ©Stanley Buman. East of Harlan, IA.

Fortunately, regulations and protections were put in place to save the eagles. The federal Bald Eagle Protection Act was established in 1940 but the big changes happened in 1972 with the banning of DDT and in 1978 when the Bald Eagle was placed on the Federal Endangered Species List (in danger of extinction).

According to the IA DNR, there were 417 Bald Eagle nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963. By 1998, that number had risen to 5,743, a fourteen-fold increase! By 2007, the Bald Eagles was delisted – no longer on the endangered list.

The Bald Eagle population in Alaska had a similar fate but their population plummeted for another reason. In 1917, the Alaska Territorial Legislature, in response to claims by the salmon industry and coastal fox farmers that eagle predation was competing with their livelihood, imposed a bounty on eagles. Though the claims were later largely discredited, the bounty system lasted for 36 years and led to the killing of a confirmed 120,195 eagles and undoubtedly countless more for which no bounty was paid. The bounty was removed in 1953 and with Alaska statehood in 1959, bald eagles in Alaska came under the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Now, Alaska has the largest population of bald eagles in the United States, about 30,000 birds.

The recovery success of the Bald Eagle is proof that protection through regulation does indeed work.

Thanks to conservation efforts and federal protection, Bald Eagles are fairly common today. Sony a1 + 600mm lens, ISO 1600, f/5.0, 1/5000. ©Stanley Buman. Kenai Peninsula, AK.

The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to prevent the extinction of plants and animals, increase their numbers, and sustain a viable population. This means not only protecting the species themselves but also the ecosystems upon which they depend. The Bald Eagle is truly a success story. Yet, all species matter, not just our national symbol. It is important that this legislation remains in place, is not weakened, and is enforced.