Symbol of Success: America’s Bald Eagle and the Endangered Species Act

Bald eagle taking flight.
Eagle taking flight. This photo, by Robert Miller, is from the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
The most iconic of Endangered Species Act success stories is the recovery of the bald eagle, our national symbol. Magnificent in stature and beautiful to behold, the bald eagle very nearly disappeared from the lower-48 states, in contrast to an historic population of as many as 100,000.

The bald eagle has been protected for some 95 years, but continued killing was the primary cause for passage of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940. While that helped, an even bigger challenge in the mid-20th century was the widespread use of DDT, which led to a dangerously low population of 500 or fewer bald eagle pairs in the lower-48 states by 1963. Under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, a precursor to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the bald eagle was officially declared an endangered species in 1967.

Road to Recovery

Enactment of the Endangered Species Act and the banning of DDT were both critical actions that lead to the recovery of the bald eagle. With the banning in 1972 of DDT — the cause of egg-shell thinning and breakage — the stage was set for nationwide efforts to recover the bald eagle via the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lead extensive efforts with the National Wildlife Federation and others to facilitate recovery of the bald eagle. These efforts included captive breeding programs, reintroductions, law enforcement, and nest site protection.

The National Wildlife Federation toured the country with a captive bald eagle named Migisiwa to increase public awareness and support for recovery of bald eagles.  We also posted a $1,000 award for anyone providing information leading to conviction for killing a bald eagle.

The National Wildlife Federation undertook efforts in the field to help bald eagles recover in the Chesapeake Bay. We also started the nationwide Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey in 1979 to monitor bald eagle populations, coordinating it until 1992, whereupon it was handed over to the federal government for continuation.

A bald eagle in flight. This photo, by Clinton Ferrara, is from the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
A bald eagle in flight. This photo, by Clinton Ferrara, is from the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, the banning of DDT and the efforts of many biologists and citizens across the country, the bald eagle population reached about 10,000 pairs. In 2007 the bald eagle was officially taken off of the list of threatened and endangered species. Once again, the bald eagle thrills the hearts of those who are lucky enough to behold our national symbol soaring into the sky.

Take Action ButtonCelebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act by learning more about Endangered Species Day and threatened wildlife in your state, and spread the word about this incredibly important legislation.