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Bald Eagles in DC? Thank the ESA

Bald Eagle MD USFWS
This iconic bird is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act (Image: USFWS)

I’m lucky enough to make my home in a wooded area along the Potomac River, outside of Washington, DC.  Many mornings when I leave my home, I see a bald eagle, sometimes two, perched in the trees, scanning the water below for their next meal.  On a particularly good day I see them flying overhead, a fish clearly visible in their talons.  The site never fails to fill me with awe and I always catch myself smiling, my thoughts turn towards gratitude and I need to remind myself to pay attention to the road.

Sights like the eagles in my suburban neighborhood are not the result of chance.  As recently as 40 years ago, a relatively short time in the practice of wildlife conservation, there were less than 450 bald eagles in the Lower 48 States, their numbers decimated by habitat loss and poisoning of the environment.  Thanks to the Endangered Species Act the eagle has recovered from the brink of extinction to over 4,500 nesting pairs.

The Endangered Species Act effectively safeguards America’s natural heritage.  But conservation demands innovation, especially in an era of climate disruption where new challenges and opportunities continue to make themselves apparent.  Recognizing this, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the two agencies with chief responsibility for implementing the law, have begun filling policy gaps in the Endangered Species Act, improving implementation and providing resource managers and stakeholders greater clarity and assurances.

Recently the agencies proposed a new rule that if adopted should help America’s fish and wildlife, and the $700 billion economy dependent on them, better adapt to changing environmental conditions brought about by climate disruption.  The proposal directs professional wildlife managers to look towards the future and the conservation opportunities found there instead of setting about the impossible task of recapturing a past lost in the smog of greenhouse gas pollution.  By looking to take advantage of current and future conservation opportunities instead of returning historic conditions, the proposal will make the Endangered Species Act more effective in our emerging world and improve the ability of scientists and others to ensure species survival in the wild.

The proposal also allows managers to begin conserving a species range wide. As range shifts are a likely outcome of climate disruption, doing so will allow conservationists to get ahead of species declines by focusing resources in places where the species is likely to be found in the future, including areas where numbers are currently healthy.

With scientists anticipating significant declines in America’s native biodiversity due to climate disruption unless conservation practices improve, last week’s proposal is a much needed step forward in America’s commitment to steward our natural heritage for future generations.  We are not done yet though.  Additional steps should be taken and more policy gaps filled so the Endangered Species Act continues to generate success stories like the bald eagles in suburban Washington, DC.


Column by Catherine Semcer, Senior Washington Representative for the Sierra Club's Lands Protection Program.


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