Saving America’s Icon

p1070533I never saw a Bald Eagle during my childhood in Illinois in the 1950s – 1960s.  Not because I was not observant, I was. It was because they had been extirpated in Illinois by 1918, meaning eliminated from this part of their range.  Illinois was not the only state where this occurred.  According to the Center for Biological Diversity,  Bald Eagles were also extirpated in 15 other states:  Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas Nebraska, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and South Dakota.  The state of Colorado only had one pair of Bald Eagles left in 1974.

Here is the good news:  All of these states and the rest of the
United States now have Bald Eagles.  Instead of destroying our national icon; we restored its population.


My home state of Illinois now has 135 pairs of Bald Eagles.  The Bald Eagle population in the lower-48 United States has increased from a low point of 417 pairs in 1963 to 9,789 pairs in 2007, which led to their de-listing.  In the words of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “It (the Bald Eagle) no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act because its population is protected, healthy and growing.”

The recovery of Bald Eagles is a great national success story.  We brought back our national icon from a downward spiral that could have resulted in its extinction.  In the words of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology “The Bald Eagle’s recovery is a spectacular conservation success story…once endangered by hunting and pesticides, Bald Eagles have flourished under protection.”


Nesting Bald Eagle – Skagit County, WA

The Bald Eagle’s recovery is personal to me.  After moving to the West from the Midwest and eventually settling in Seattle, I recall when a pair of Bald Eagles established one of the city’s first nests at Discovery Park  – the other was in Seward Park – in the 1980s.  My wife and I held our wedding ceremony in Discovery park not far from the nest site.  At Seward Park, I helped establish the Audubon Center that now operates there.  Apparently, I was drawn to the same large parks in the city as the eagles were.  Now Seattle has at least 12 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles within its city limits.  Two pairs nest within two miles of my house.  After growing up in a place where Bald Eagles did not exist, I now see them flying over our back yard.


Wintering Bald Eagles in Skagit County, WA



While I was working for The Nature Conservancy in the 1980s – 1990s, we were part of the Bald Eagle recovery process.  The Conservancy purchased and protected lands for Bald Eagle nesting, roosting, wintering and feeding sites in Western Washington.  This work, along with many other state, federal, tribal, nonprofit and for profit company efforts led to a major increase in the state’s Bald Eagle population, from 104 pairs in 1980 to 835 pairs in 2007.


Washington now ranks fifth among states with the highest Bald Eagle Populations.  The top five are:  1.  Alaska (15,000 pairs); 2. Minnesota (1310 pairs); 3. Florida (1,166 pairs); 4. Wisconsin (1,065 pairs); and 5. Washington (835 pairs).

The demise and recovery of Bald Eagles begs two questions:  What caused their decline? And how did they recover from it?


Jeff Larsen photograph – 2 adult Bald Eagles

The decline of Bald Eagles was summarized by Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “Bald Eagles were victims of trapping, shooting, poisoning as well as pesticide-caused reproductive failures.”  The widespread use of the pesticide DDT (they used to spray it in my childhood neighborhood, and then suggest that we not play out doors for a one-day period!) caused egg shell thinning in a number of bird species at the top of the food chain, including:  Bald Eagle, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon and Brown and American White Pelicans.  The weakened eggs hatched pre-maturely causing the young to die.

How did Bald Eagle populations recover?  Through a combination of policies and actions, including:

  • Banning the use DDT (1972)
  • Listing them as Endangered Species (Endangered Species Act or ESA 1978)
  • Protecting Bald Eagle Nest Sites (Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act, amended 1962)
  • Making it illegal to shoot or “take” them (Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act, amended 1962)
  • Restoring Bald Eagles to the areas where they had been eliminated (ongoing for decades)
  • Cleaning up formerly contaminated streams, lakes and coastal areas (Clean Water Act, 1970 and Superfund Act 1980)

Bald Eagle perches on light fixture above Lake Washington, Seattle

Due to these collective and effective conservation efforts, the Bald Eagle is back.  Regulations along with concerted efforts by all sectors made this happen.  Bald Eagles are not the only ones we have brought back from the brink of extinction.  Peregrine Falcons, Brown and American White Pelicans, California Condors, Whooping Cranes, Grizzly Bears, Gray Wolves, American Alligators, and, Humpback Whales are among the species that have also been saved in the past few decades.  The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 227 plant and animal species would likely have gone extinct if we had not passed and implemented the ESA.


Eagles soar over our back yard

Why save species? E.O. Wilson, a Harvard entomologist and a southern Baptist raised in Alabama said it best: “This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve.  It has eaten the storms – folded them into its genes – and created the world that creates us.  It keeps the world steady.”

In the final analysis, saving species and the environment equates to saving ourselves.  We are a species too; we need clean air, clean water and a healthy ecosystem in order to survive.



Immature Bald Eagle

We have made great strides in protecting the environment since the 1960s.  I know; I was there.  You could not go swimming in many lakes and rivers; there were massive fish die offs.  The air made your eyes water.  Pollution was rampant.  Species were going extinct.  People threw trash out of car windows.  Nobody recycled.

Let’s not go back to these bad old days of mindlessly trashing the environment.
We have too much at stake and have come too far.

The Bald Eagle’s recovery shows what good people can do to save a fellow species, and in the process, make the environment cleaner and healthier for all of us.


  • Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology 
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Washington State Department of Wildlife

 – photos all taken by author except one as noted by Jeff Larsen