Bald Eagle Delisting: Which Way From Here?

Bald eagles, like ospreys, are primarily fish eaters and depend on the health of rivers and estuaries. But that’s not the only reason fly fishers should rejoice over the recovery of the species from its 1960s nadir, when the U.S. seemed to be just waking up to the fact that the unbridled industrial growth and unregulated agricultural science was not in the best interest of birds or people. More important, I think, is that the bald eagle has been reinserted into the daily lives of people. They make people stop whatever they are doing and look. They don’t require an Audubon guide for identification. And they are one of the few animals that kids seem to be instinctually in awe of.
With all of the media coverage of delisting, which was announced by the U.S. Interior Department yesterday, it’s easy to accept this change in policy as a victory for environmentalists and move on. But it is also worth mentioning that the beleaguered Endangered Species Act was as much responsible for the eagle’s recovery as anything else. Like the Clean Water Act, the ESA brought a sea change to environmental action on the part of government, business and individuals. And like the Clean Water Act, we can thank the ESA for results that will be felt and seen for generations.
Ironically, the ESA has been under serious attack from developers in recent years, and even this week the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the ESA with a ruling that allows the Environmental Protection Agency to disregard the welfare of endangered species when transferring permitting authority to states. “In a press statement, the National Association of Home Builders, a trade organization that represents developers, applauded the Supreme Court decision as maintaining balance when considering environmental regulations. ‘We can’t say that the Endangered Species Act is an “uber-statute” that should slow down regulatory decisions,’ the builders association president Brian Catalde said.” (John Roach in the National Geographic News.)
Mark Clayton examines these and more issues in the Christian Science Monitor, where he notes that recent interpretations of the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act may still prevent developers from willy-nilly destruction of eagle habitat. “Under an updated FWS’s regulatory definition, disturbing now includes any human activity that drives the eagle away from its nests. So developers whose operations drive the birds away will now fit the definition of ‘disturbing’ and be subject to federal sanctions.”

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