HAMPTON, Ill. - Unfolding its 7-foot wingspan, a bald eagle soared over the mist-blanketed Mississippi River, just upstream from this month's Bald Eagle Days festivities in Rock Island.
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There were fewer avian guests of honor at the 20th annual celebration - typically one of the nation's largest concentrations of bald eagles - because the unusually mild weather allowed the birds to winter over farther north.
But the sparse turnout masks a conservation triumph: Across the country, the national symbol, once teetering on the brink of extinction, has rebounded dramatically in the past three decades.
That, in turn, has sparked controversy.
As the eagle population has grown, the federal government has moved toward lifting the eagles' protected status under the Endangered Species Act.
The process has been a slow one, stretching out over seven years as the federal government negotiated with regulators in states across the nation, as well as other interested parties, to develop a new set of rules governing the bird.
Now, as next month's date for removing the bald eagle from the threatened species list draws near, some conservationists are accusing the Bush administration of making last-minute changes that will benefit waterfront developers and leave eagles vulnerable.
The contention surrounds the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the earlier Migratory Bird Treaty Act, both still in effect, which prohibit killing, selling and harming eagles or their eggs.
The laws had been trumped for decades by the more stringent 1973 Endangered Species Act.
With that removal imminent, attention has turned to a provision of the Eagle Protection Act that makes it illegal to disturb an eagle or its nest.
"Disturb" was not previously defined, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now proposing that it mean "to agitate or bother a bald or golden eagle to the degree that causes injury or death to an eagle (including chicks or eggs) due to interference with breeding, feeding or sheltering behavior."
That interpretation, wildlife advocates say, benefits developers because it would be difficult to prove harm, which under the proposed rule, requires evidence of "a wound or physical harm."
Disturbances such as scaring eagles off their nests or away from feeding areas might cause harm, but drawing the link between those actions and the death of an eagle would be difficult.
Opponents say only the most blatant cases, such as cutting down a tree with a nest full of eggs, could be prosecuted.
Wildlife service spokesman Nicholas Throckmorton said the proposed definition is intended to clarify the law and make it enforceable, not to weaken it.
He also pointed out the service is providing developers voluntary guidelines on providing buffer space around an eagle habitat and distances for operating heavy machinery.
But that has not mollified some environmentalists.
"I think it will fail to provide the level of protection that is needed to ensure the eagle doesn't sort of risk sliding back toward the more imperiled state it was in the past," said Michael Bean, chairman of the wildlife program for Environmental Defense, a New York-based non-profit group.
Since the arrival of European settlers, the eagle population had been decimated by hunting, extermination as pests and habitat loss to agriculture, development and logging. The pesticide DDT was devastating, contaminating the fish eagles eat and causing their eggs to become brittle.
By 1963, there were fewer than 500 active nests in the lower 48 states. Four years later, eagles were named an endangered species under a precursor to the Endangered Species Act. DDT was banned in 1972.
By 1995, eagles were reclassified from "endangered" to "threatened" species, meaning they were no longer facing the threat of extinction. By 1999, their population had become secure enough that President Bill Clinton proposed removing them from the threatened list.
Today, there are more than 7,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states.
When lakes and rivers ice over in January, eagles from Canada and the northern Midwest flock to the open water at the base of dams in the Quad Cities region, where fish are easy pickings.
In recent frigid winters, up to 4,000 eagles have been counted along the Mississippi between Illinois and Iowa, said Jody Millar, the service's Bald Eagle Recovery coordinator.
But the river and other waters are flowing freely this balmy winter - and the eagles have scattered, or not bothered flying south.
"Normally, that whole shoreline along Credit Island would be all solid white heads, but I guess you'd have to go up to Minnesota today," Millar said, peering through binoculars at a line of trees on the banks of the Mississippi near Davenport, Iowa.
Hundreds of elementary school children at the Rock Island Expo Center on a recent Friday did not seem to mind.
They eagerly peppered a raptor handler with questions under the watchful yellow eyes of a bald eagle perched on a leather glove.
"We were lucky with the bald eagle," Roger Holloway, director of interpretive services at World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, told the students. "We were able to intervene and make improvements to the environment so they could come back. Now, it's going to be your job to keep an eye on them."
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