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Fierce, Majestic, Powerful and in Peril

Bald eagles evoke images that are matched by few other animals. At the apex of flight, serenely perched on a tree or boldly diving toward prey, they are at once fierce, majestic, powerful and independent. Their choice as our nation’s emblem is obvious.

Bald eagles are found along four major flyways: (1) the Pacific Flyway from Alaska to California; (2) the Rocky Mountain Flyway from Canada to Arizona and New Mexico; (3) the Mississippi Flyway from the Great Lakes Region to the Gulf Coast; and (4) the Atlantic Flyway from Newfoundland to Florida They once flourished in this country, but their population has drastically declined in the last century.

Humans are the biggest threat to bald eagles. Much of the bald eagles’ habitat was lost, many of the birds were shot, and they were exposed to widespread contaminants. Between 1917 and 1952, for example, a bounty was placed on bald eagles in Alaska. Fishermen believed the birds competed with them for salmon. Although this belief was unfounded, more than 100,000 birds were killed during the 35 years the bounty was in effect.

In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act that prohibited the killing, possessing, and transporting of bald eagles without permits, except in Alaska. The law was later amended to include Alaska and golden eagles. Still, populations continued to fall.

Fish, the preferred prey of bald eagles, were killed by water pollution. Persistent pesticides such as DDT, which disrupts a bald eagle’s reproduction system, lingered in the environment. By 1974, only 791 breeding pairs were counted in the 48 contiguous states. Idaho had only 11 pairs in 1979.

In 1978, the bald eagle was designated as an endangered species in 43 states and a threatened species in five states under authority of the Endangered Species Act. In 1995, the bald eagle was reclassified as a threatened species throughout the lower 48 states (not so in Alaska and Hawaii). In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from protection of the Endangered Species Act because its national population increased to 9,789 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states.  In Idaho, the number of bald eagle nests had grown to 216 in 2006.


Bald eagle