Bald Eagle

Photo credit: Tracy Abell

While visiting the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge with friend, we spotted a large bird in a tree near a lake. As we approached, it was clear this was not a hawk. It was much too large. Based on the brown coloring (including the brown head), I then assumed it was a golden eagle. I was wrong! We actually saw a juvenile bald eagle. And, as research revealed, that bird is about a year and a half old. It was magnificent and I feel lucky to have see it.

Bald eagles were nearly driven to extinction in the 20th century in the contiguous United States. The first protection of eagles came with the Lacey Act in 1900, making it illegal to take, disturb, transport, sell, import, or export eagles, their nests, eggs, or feathers. Then in 1940, the Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act strengthened the protections and penalties for harming bald eagles in any way. Still, eagle numbers across the US continued to drop.

The silent killer was the pesticide DDT used by farmers. This chemical made its way into the soil and water, and into the prey of eagles. Eagles that ingested DDT produced very weak eggs, most of which did not hatch. It was not until Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962 that this truth was revealed. Nonetheless, a full decade passed before DDT was banned.

When the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1967, and later the stronger Endangered Species Act of 1973 were passed, bald eagles were on the list. The ESA finally provided the legal backing to actively initiate conservation efforts for bald eagles. This included captive breeding programs and reintroductions, protection of nesting sites, and increased law enforcement, as well as targeted and enforced habitat protection. The efforts were resoundingly successful. By 1995, bald eagles’ status was moved from endangered to threatened. In 2007, bald eagle populations had recovered so well the bird was taken off the Endangered Species List. This is just one of many success stories of the ESA. And even though bald eagles are thriving, I feel lucky every time I see one.