WASHINGTON - The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to replace four decades of federal protections for the American bald eagle with new rules against disturbing it.
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In a push to remove the nation's symbol from the endangered species list, the wildlife agency is writing new regulations under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act to protect the birds and their nesting, breeding and feeding areas from anything likely to cause them harm.
The law, which dates to 1940, says only that bald eagles cannot be disturbed. Since 1967, when the bald eagle was listed as an endangered species, it has benefited from much tougher protections.
The government's new interpretation of the 1940 law, proposed Friday, would allow the birds to be moved in rare cases if their nests or breeding and feeding grounds were in the way of an airport runway or some other development. Killing or injuring them accidentally would not be punishable.
Fish and Wildlife, which is part of the Interior Department, must meet a June 29 court-ordered deadline in deciding whether to remove the bald eagle from the endangered species list.
A federal judge in Minnesota ordered the agency last year to remove the eagle from the list unless the government could prove further delays were necessary. The order came in a lawsuit brought by Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of a Minnesota landowner who wants to develop property with an active bald eagle nest.
In 1963, there were just 417 known nesting pairs left in the lower 48 states, mainly because of DDT and other pesticides that weakened the eggshells and reduced the birth rate. Outside Alaska and Canada, where tens of thousands of bald eagles live and their existence has not been in doubt, at least 9,789 known nesting pairs now exist in the wild, officials say.
"The bald eagle has rebounded from the brink of extinction to reach population levels that have not been seen since World War II," H. Dale Hall, the Fish and Wildlife Service's director, said Friday. "Our overriding concern has been to ensure that bald eagles continue to thrive once they no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act."
The agency in 1999 proposed delisting the bald eagle but the idea ran into government red tape, including the requirement that each state provide updated counts.
Environmentalists were pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to toughen an earlier proposal, which would kick in only after an eagle died or was hurt or lost its nest, and include protections against things likely to cause harm.
"Now the service doesn't have to wait until it has a dead eagle," said Michael Bean, a lawyer who heads Environmental Defense's wildlife program. "With this improvement, one can look forward to the removal of the bald eagle from the endangered species list without the worry that it will head right back toward endangerment."