Updated: Mar 18, 2022
The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), our national symbol since 1782, was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range forty years ago. It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that Bald Eagles became an emblem of the environmental movement. Their numbers dropped because of habitat destruction, degradation, illegal shooting, and the contamination of its food source due to pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). After the banning of DDT in 1972 and protecting the species under the fledgling Endangered Species Act in 1978, conservation actions taken by the American public helped Bald Eagles make a remarkable recovery.
When the US adopted the Bald Eagle as the national symbol, the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting eagles. The first significant decline of the species began in the mid to late 1800s due to encroachment, development, and even hunting. In 1940, after learning of the declining numbers of the species, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited killing, selling, or possession of the species. However, in 1962, after the amendment of the Bald Eagle Protection Act, in order to include golden eagles, the law became the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
After World War II, DDT was hailed as a new pesticide to control mosquitoes and other insects. As the saying goes, 'everything comes with a price', DDT and residues washed into adjacent water sources where aquatic plants and fish absorbed it, resulting in poisoning Bald Eagles when they ate the contaminated fish. The poisoning affected the species' ability to produce strong eggshells which often broke during incubation or failed to hatch. In addition to the impacts of DDT, some Bald Eagles died from lead poisoning after feeding on waterfowl containing lead shots due to hunting. By 1963, the species was in danger of extinction, with only 487 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles remaining.
In 1972, the US banned DDT, and listed the Bald Eagles as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In addition to the DDT ban and the Endangered Species Act protections improved habitat, protected nest sites, and, most importantly, introducing captive eagles to the areas they had previously been extirpated (locally extinct). These actions helped to bring the Bald Eagles back from the brink of extinction. In 2007, the Bald Eagles were delisted from the Endangered Species Act. After being delisted, Bald Eagles are now only protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Based on a technical update published by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in 2021, there are a total of 316,700 individuals, which included 71,467 breeding pairs of Bald Eagles.
Taking the Bald Eagles off the Endangered Species list didn't mean an end to federal regulations concerning the management of the species. It just meant their management was once again governed solely by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Although Bald Eagles are rebounding, they are still well below their historic numbers. Now that Bald Eagles are off the endangered species list, we need to closely watch how they're being managed and conserved. However, the recent discovery of 500,000 barrels of DDT that Montrose Chemical Corp. dumped into the Pacific Ocean off Southern California (near Santa Catalina Island) from 1947 through 1961 raises new challenges for the recovered species. We need to better understand how this DDT is circulating through our coastal ecosystems to protect wildlife from future harm.
Although the future is impossible to predict, Bald Eagles advocates are optimistic about their recovery and success in future too. That said, it is crucial to support the Bald Eagles conservation efforts. The stakeholders such as agencies, nonprofits, researchers, institutions, communities and individuals are collectively working for the conservation of the species. You can also be a part of the conservation efforts by helping restore their habitats and reporting issues to the proper authorities. Bald Eagles are susceptible to harm by disturbances so you can help to conserve this species by remaining at distance from the species and not disturbing their nest sites. If you are local to Orange County and you are interested to see this majestic species, then we have some good news. In Spring 2019, there were 10 Bald Eagles confirmed in Orange County, with two confirmed pairs of Bald Eagles nesting. The best chance to spot Bald Eagles is Irvine Lake in Orange County. For more information on Bald Eagles in Orange County, visit the Orange County Birds of Prey website, https://www.ocbpc.org/.