The resurgence of the bald eagle is reason for Americans to feel proud. In the 1960s it looked like our national bird might disappear from the lower 48 states and Americans desperately wanted to protect the eagle.
And protect it we have. Today, the bald eagle is soaring. The population is growing at 8 percent annually, reaching at least 11,137 pairs in the lower 48 states this year. This doesn’t even include the 50,000 bald eagles in Alaska (the bald eagle was never in danger of extinction – more than 100,000 reside in Alaska and Canada).
As a result of today’s booming population, the bald eagle in the 48 states has been removed, or “delisted,” from the Endangered Species Act. While we should celebrate the eagle’s recovery, we should also examine what caused its decline and recovery so we can improve future conservation efforts.
By far the single biggest cause of the eagle’s rebound occurred in 1972, one year before the Endangered Species Act’s passage.
“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,” notes the National Audubon Society.
DDT caused widespread reproductive failures among eagles, but the population increased rapidly after its ban.
With DDT out of the picture, the eagle’s worst enemy actually became the Endangered Species Act. Suddenly, the government was threatening harsh penalties – one year in jail and/or a $100,000 fine for anyone harming a single eagle, egg or even altering habitat.
Property owners aren’t afraid of bald eagles, or whatever other endangered species they harbor on their land. In most cases they’re proud to have rare species on their property. Nevertheless, the ESA’s penalties turned these landowner conservationists into enemies of endangered species. Landowners engaged in “shoot, shovel and shut-up” tactics – destroying habitat to eliminate species that had been needlessly turned into financial liabilities by the government.
Consider the case of Ed Contoski, co-owner of 18 lakeshore acres in Minnesota. To provide for his retirement, Ed decided in 2004 to sell his property to family members. In order to raise the $425,000 needed to purchase Ed’s half-share, 7.33 acres had to be divided in to five residential lots. But authorities informed Ed they would not approve his plans due to a bald eagle nest that precluded development on all 7.33 acres.
Why should people like Ed bear the sole burden of protecting the public good?
To recover use of his land, Ed sued the Interior Department for failing to delist the eagle. (The bald eagle should have been removed from the ESA in the early-to-mid 1990s, when it surpassed the goal of around 3,000 pairs in the lower 48 states.)
Contoski won his case in August 2006, forcing the federal government to remove the eagle from Endangered Species Act.
But the eagle is being removed in name only because the ESA’s land-use controls have been transferred to another federal law, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act passed by Congress. As a result, property owners such as Ed Contoski are still going to be stuck in bald eagle purgatory.
Private citizens are the heart and soul of the nation’s conservation efforts. In fact, more species, nearly 80 percent, have some or all their habitat on private land than on public land. Yet if one had purposely designed a law to pit landowners against wildlife, it would be hard to top the Endangered Species Act.
The Endangered Species Act needs a fundamentally new approach that removes the Act’s punitive regulations altogether and taps the enormous reservoir of latent goodwill toward wildlife that exists among America’s landowners. So long as endangered species conservation is achieved through compulsion, the results will fall far short of what could be accomplished voluntarily.
Brian Seasholes is an adjunct scholar at Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank in Los Angeles, Calif.