Delisting the bald eagle: an ESA victory?
Countless articles proclaimed victory with the delisting of the bald eagle. And, in fairness, delisting is indeed the very objective of the ESA, because it reflects "recovery" of a species to the point where the protective measures of the ESA are no longer necessary. But the bald eagle is an especially bad example of a delisting that proves the ESA to be working.
First, the reality is that the recovery of the bald eagle was due, in very large part, not to the ESA, but rather, to the elimination of DDT and the success of the Clean Water Act. See, "Saving Our Symbol" by The National Zoo. The ESA, while raising awareness for the species, generated limited direct effects on the bird.
Second, even without the ESA, the bald eagle remains a specially protected species pursuant to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act – a statute with many of the same prohibitions as the ESA. See, NPR Report (June 28, 2007). Thus, the delisting of the bald eagle, in terms of political and legal effects, remains largely symbolic, rather than reflective of true success in species management.
Bald eagle photo, courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Of course, many knowledgeable and dedicated people argue that all delistings are bad for wildlife management. See, Associated Content Report. But let there be no misunderstanding of this author's opinion: delisting can good. But the point made here is that the bald eagle is not a paragon of ESA success.
Sadly, as with many things about the ESA, black and white turns gray. Even the simple, binary question of whether to list or delist can be clouded with scientific uncertainty and political concerns. Consider, for example, the Yellowstone grizzly bear population. See U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery page. The ESA prohibited harming of the species (such as hunting), raised awareness, and eventually helped lead to a stable bear population in the Yellowstone region -- one that serves as an important part of the National Park tourist economy. As a result, both the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation have declared the Yellowstone bear populations to be an example of ESA success. Still, as with many ESA issues, nuances remain. See www.yellowstonepark.com. While Yellowstone bear populations thrive in the enormous habitat available, some groups believe the Yellowstone population too small to survive, see grizzlypeople.com while debate rages over whether grizzly populations in other locations have recovered. See, University of Idaho report.
So next time a report declares a species delisting to be the perfect example of ESA success, be suspicious. Inevitably, the truth is more complicated.
P.S. For more information about the bald eagle, and recent sightings in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County, Florida, click here.