The bald eagle population in the lower 48 states has quadrupled since 2009, researchers said this week, underscoring decades of efforts to protect a species that was once on the brink of extinction.
There were an estimated 316,700 bald eagles in the lower 48 states during the 2019 breeding season, including more than 71,400 breeding pairs, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2009, the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states was estimated at just over 72,000, including approximately 30,000 breeding pairs.
Deb Haaland, the Home Secretary, told a news conference Wednesday that the results were “truly a landmark conservation success story.”
“The bald eagle has always been considered a sacred species to Native Americans,” said Haaland, the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency. “Similarly, it is sacred to our nation as the national symbol of the United States.”
Martha Williams, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement that her organization would continue to work with state and federal agencies, tribes, private landowners and others to ensure the bald eagle population continues to increase.
Bryan Watts, professor of biology and director of the William & Mary Center for Conservation Biology, said Thursday that the report reflected what he had seen in the Chesapeake Bay region, where the bald eagle population had increased by between a 8 and 10 percent. by year.
“When you look across the continent, the continental population is really a mosaic of smaller subpopulations,” said Professor Watts. “And those populations have started their growth phases at different times, and will eventually reach saturation at different times.”
The researchers were able to include younger eagles and floaters, mature eagles that were unable to secure breeding grounds, in the population estimate released Wednesday, which they said they had not been able to do as effectively in previous studies.
The numbers are particularly remarkable given that the species was near extinction in the last century.
In 1917, bald eagles were considered a threat in Alaska. The government sponsored a bounty of 50 cents per bird, and then a dollar, leading to more than 120,000 confirmed killings. By the mid-20th century, all but a few hundred bald eagles were presumed dead, largely killed by the widespread use of the synthetic insecticide DDT. The bald eagle population reached its lowest point of 417 known nesting pairs in 1963, the researchers said.
But thanks to protection and conservation efforts, and the ban on DDT in 1972, the population was able to recover over the years. The bald eagle was removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 2007.
While many celebrated the increase in numbers, bald eagles in recent years have become a nuisance to poultry farmers hoping to raise well-rounded, healthy livestock, prompting many to apply for an eagle predation permit from the Service. of Fishing and Wild Life.
“I really think the population has reached a period where we are going beyond conservation restrictions,” said Professor Watts, adding that eagle populations in areas like Florida, the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest They have been “furious” since the 1970s and 1980s.
Professor Watts said there were cases of eagles nesting like garden birds in many residential areas. “That was not the case in the ’70s and’ 80s,” he said. “In fact, we could never have anticipated that they would do that.”
He doesn’t see society going back to a period when bald eagle hunting would be allowed, he said, adding that bald eagles are America’s national symbol. “I think they should be revered, respected and protected,” he said.
When asked if the report held hope for other endangered and previously endangered species, Professor Watts said it was an indicator of what can be achieved when a culture collectively decides to value something.
“I hope we go back to the time when we recognized the environment as an important support structure for our society,” he said, “and we respect some of the species that are currently in decline.”
Catrin Einhorn contributed to reporting.