The Still-Problematic State of the Birds 2014 Report: Giving the Endangered Species Act Sole Credit for the Bald Eagle’s Recovery

Commentary

The Still-Problematic State of the Birds 2014 Report: Giving the Endangered Species Act Sole Credit for the Bald Eagle’s Recovery

While pre-release publicity for the influential State of the Birds 2014 report was very problematic in large part because of its highly political bent vis-à-vis the Endangered Species Act (as noted here in a previous post), the actual report released this week is better because it is more measured and less political. Even so, the report makes a real whopper about the Endangered Species Act.

According to the report, the Endangered Species Act is “the lifeline that rescued Bald Eagles.” Not a lifeline. The lifeline. If only it were true.

The paramount factor in the bald eagle’s resurgence in the lower 48 states was the ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972, not passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. According to no less an authority than the National Audubon Society (as reported in the Christian Science Monitor), “Nearly everyone agrees that the key to the eagle’s resurgence-even more so than the Endangered Species Act-was the banning of the use of the insecticide DDT in this country in 1972.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also acknowledges the primacy of the ban. “Bald eagle populations began to recover throughout their range after the 1972 Environmental Protection Agency ban of DDT,” the agency states in its recovery plan for the bald eagle in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Indeed, there is a very large body of evidence in the scholarly literature of the effects of DDT on bald eagle reproduction and population dynamics, as well as for other raptors such as the peregrine falcon. One key article on the bald eagle appeared in the influential journal Science in 1982 and was authored by James Grier, zoology professor and noted expert on the eagle. In the article, Grier stated “I would not expect to see a natural fluctuation in this population on the order that appears to have been caused by the introduction and subsequent withdrawal of DDT.” And Ron Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine and reason.com, wrote a terrific article on the issue of DDT and the decline of the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and brown pelican in which he discusses other scholarly literature, as well as expert opinion.

DDT caused eagles to lay unnaturally thin-shelled eggs that were susceptible to breaking and being unviable. As a result, this impaired reproduction to such an extent the population crashed in much of the lower 48 states. But, as the National Audubon Society points out, DDT was banned in 1972, one year before the Endangered Species Act’s passage. Therefore the Act can take no credit for the key factor in the eagle’s rebound. This is as true now as it was in 2007 when the bald eagle in the lower 48 states was delisted, or removed from protection under the Act.

There are two other main problems with the claim by the State of the Birds 2014 report that the Endangered Species Act was solely responsible for the bald eagle’s recovery. First, it implies the bald eagle was in danger of extinction, which is simply not true because the vast majority of the species’ population, around 70%, lived in Alaska and British Columbia in 2007 when the eagle was removed from the endangered species list. (Curiously, this information, which was available from a 2004 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service document has been removed from the more recent version of the document, which was first posted around the time of the eagle’s delisting in 2007 and is still available. Fortunately, the 2004 version is available from the invaluable internet archive, the Wayback Machine)

From the mid-to-late 1960s until the mid-1970s there were concerns about the bald eagle being extirpated from large portions of the lower 48 states. But this is very different than extinction, which means a species over its entire range is gone forever.

The State of the Birds 2014 report also fails to mention that from the time of the Endangered Species Act’s passage at the end of December 1973 until mid-February 1978 roughly 70% of the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states was on the increase even though it was not listed under the Act. These unlisted eagles included the large and healthy populations in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin that somehow were on the upswing without the “benefit” of the Endangered Species Act. The population in Minnesota grew from 115 breeding pairs in 1973 to 156 breeding pairs in 1977 (surveys from 1978 are not included because they were conducted after bald eagles in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan were added to the endangered species list). In Wisconsin, over the same time period, bald eagle pairs increased from 108 to 151. And in Michigan, the number of eagle pairs increased from 83 to 89 (the data for Minnesota and Michigan are not available online but can be obtained by contacting these states’ Departments of Natural Resources).

There were, of course, many other factors that contributed to the bald eagle’s recovery in the lower 48 states (as I’ve discussed here and here), including habitat protection (some of which was carried out under the Endangered Species Act), monitoring, reintroduction of eagles to regions from which they were extirpated (almost totally by states and private organizations, not the federal government), the banning of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991 (for which the Endangered Species Act played a key role because ingested lead caused eagle mortality), and a decline in mortality from shooting due to a combination of the eagle’s status as the national bird, changing societal values and laws other than the Endangered Species Act. Even so, there is no escaping the reality that the paramount reason for the bald eagle’s recovery in the lower 48 states had nothing to do with the Endangered Species Act.

Brian Seasholes is a former research fellow with Reason Foundation.