Protected since 1967 under the Endangered Species Act, the eagle may be delisted as soon as Thursday.
Bald eagles were once so reviled in Maine that settlers killed and fed them to hogs. Wrongly tarred as livestock predators, they were poisoned in South Dakota and shot from airplanes in California.
By 1963, eagles had dwindled from an estimated half a million birds to just 417 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. But in one of the most remarkable comebacks by a US species close to extinction, the bald eagle has rebounded to more than 11,000 pairs.
As a result, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is expected as soon as Thursday to remove the bald eagle from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list of threatened species. It's a step environmentalists generally support, along with enthusiastic property-rights advocates who fought hard to get the eagle delisted.
Even without ESA protection, however, the bald eagle numbers will be monitored by the FWS for the next five years, and the eagle will still be protected by at least three federal and numerous state laws - though none are as powerful as the ESA, legal experts say. In fact, it is the ESA itself that deserves much of the credit for the eagle's comeback, many say.
"The bald eagle represents one of the greatest endangered species recovery stories in US history," says Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group focused on endangered species preservation based in Tucson, Ariz. "But it's really a victory for the Endangered Species Act as much as anything else."
Although the eagle was prohibited by law from being killed as long ago as 1940, its 1967 designation as an endangered species for the first time protected key bald-eagle habitat from development. It also opened the way for funding four decades of tender support from thousands of biologists and volunteers who hatched chicks and monitored nests – and galvanized Congress to ban the pesticide DDT, which had increased eagle mortality.