Editorial: Conservation success story continues to soar

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The United States nearly pushed its national symbol to extinction in the 20th century. Yet 10 years ago today, the bald eagle officially came off the endangered species list. John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society in 2007, proclaimed the rescue "among the greatest victories of American conservation."

Indeed it was. Consider how close we came to losing the bald eagle.

Eagles were targeted by hunters for their feathers. So coveted were these birds (and reviled, in some cases) that fanatics took to airplanes to shoot them out of the sky.

Finally, Congress passed the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940, which prohibits "pursuing, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing, capturing, trapping, collecting, molesting, or disturbing" a bald or golden eagle. The act also makes it illegal to "possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, offer to purchase" any part, nest or egg of either species. (Because of eagle feathers' religious and cultural significance, the law makes an exception so federally recognized American Indian tribes can own feathers. Note that even eligible Native Americans must first get a permit.)

Congress was serious about protecting these majestic birds, so the penalty is steep: $5,000 and a year in jail for the first offense, even for picking an eagle feather off the ground and keeping it.

Then came DDT.

From municipalities to farmers to homeowners, communities widely used the "wonder" synthetic pesticide starting in the 1940s to control mosquitoes; it entered our lakes and streams. As a result, eagles and osprey — both fish-loving raptors — started laying eggs with brittle, thin shells that couldn't support the weight of a nesting parent. Populations plummeted.

The bald eagle population hit rock bottom in 1963, when the Audubon Society and federal ornithologists documented just 417 mating pairs in the lower 48 states.

Public outcry made DDT unpopular. The U.S. banned DDT in 1972. The eagles slowly came back and today we routinely see them flying across Goodhue, Pierce, Pepin and Wabasha counties farm fields far from lakes and rivers when just 20 years ago seeing a single eagle along a riverbank was worthy of exclamation and getting out of your car to stare in wonder.

The announcement came June 28, 2007, that the Department of the Interior would remove the bald eagle from protection under the Endangered Species Act. The date was set for Aug. 9.

This region where the Minnesota, Cannon, St. Croix and Chippewa rivers flow into the Mighty Mississippi played a key role in the bird's survival. While residents can take some pride in that, our role in the victory was primarily one of geography. Still, residents here raised their voices loudly, collectively and effectively in the fight. Such places as Carpenter Nature Center, National Eagle Center and our state parks and wilderness areas are the result.

The eagle has been the nation's symbol since 1782, when Congress chose its image for the country's official seal. Today, local residents are blessed that sightings of bald eagles are almost as commonplace as the U.S. quarter.