The tiny creatures weren’t just magnificent to watch. They were a testament to one of the country’s greatest conservation success stories, experts say — because roughly six decades ago, America’s national symbol was on the brink of extinction.
“We recovered the bald eagle in every state in the country,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s probably the most geographically widespread recovery effort of any endangered species.”
The bird — threatened by hunters, habitat loss and DDT poisoning — was one of the first species to be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973. The ESA requires the federal government and its agencies to use all their resources and put measures in place to ensure a listed species doesn’t go extinct.
With the help of a massive, decades-long effort to save the bird, bald eagle numbers jumped from roughly 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in the early 1960s to nearly 10,000 nesting pairs by the time they were taken off the list in 2007.
The federal law played a huge part in the bird’s recovery and is credited with helping keep hundreds more species alive since then, with the help of federal protections.
“It is a reality that the human population does continue to grow and we’re squeezing wildlife into smaller and smaller areas to live, but in species like the bald eagle we have shown that we can live side by side as long as we take simple measures to not disturb them,” Hartl said.
Here’s what experts say we can learn from the iconic bird’s success story and how Americans can help animals that are currently in peril.
What are the biggest threats to species?
When the federal government moved to create protections for the bald eagle, the animal faced several dire threats, including habitat destruction, shooting, DDT and lead poisoning, after feeding on animals that had been killed with lead ammunition or had been contaminated with the dangerous pesticide.
DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, was developed in the 1940s and used to control mosquitos and other insects. The chemical has since been classified as a probable human carcinogen and correlated with liver tumors in animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
DDT hindered the bald eagle’s ability to create strong eggshells, and they would be crushed during incubation or would not hatch. The EPA banned its use in 1972, which experts say became the first crucial step in helping bald eagles recover. Further help arrived when the ESA became law, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).
“This is where science meets policy,” said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians. “We realized, as a society, that a particular human action was threatening this iconic species, so we began to phase out DDT and that, combined with habitat protection and even halting hunting, are the main reasons that bald eagles have done so well.”
Today, there are more than 1,300 endangered or threatened species across the United States, according to the EPA. The biggest reason species are endangered is because humans have changed or polluted their habitats, according to the EPA. Manatees, which are protected under the ESA, are one example of the devastating effects of pollution.
Last month, conservation groups including the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife announced they would sue the EPA for failing to protect the animals from Florida’s water pollution, which has fueled algae blooms and killed thousands of acres of seagrass, which the manatees feed on, leading the large creatures to starvation, they said.
More than 1,000 manatees died in Florida in 2021. The groups gave the EPA 60 days to address violations before they filed a lawsuit.
“EPA is concerned about the manatee deaths and is committed to working with Florida and other partners to implement nutrient reduction strategies,” an EPA spokesperson told CNN in a statement. “We have received the notice and are currently reviewing it.”
Pollution is one of the main drivers of the extinction crisis, Jacob Malcom, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife, told CNN.
“Manatees show the manifestation of what happens when we don’t take the actions we know need to be taken,” Malcom said.
Other threats species face today include climate change, exploitation (for example, the hunting of American alligators led to the species’ decline before it gained federal protections and rebounded), and invasive species.
Invasive mosquitoes multiplying in Hawaii because of the warming climate, for example, are spreading malaria to birds endemic to those islands — and killing them.
“The birds are starting to basically just disappear in those islands,” Hartl said.
How do we pull a species from the brink of extinction?
The good news: federal protections generally work.
“The fact that almost every species that has been listed is still on the Earth today, most of them haven’t gone extinct, that’s success,” said Malcolm, of Defenders of Wildlife.
Measures that are generally taken to protect species and prevent them from going extinct include prohibitions. They include the prohibition of hunting in the case of American alligators or the DDT ban that contributed to the bald eagle’s recovery.
Another critical measure is restoring habitats.
“To ensure that every species has places to live, that is the most important intervention to keep something from the true brink of extinction,” Hartl said.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently proposed the listing of another species as endangered due to habitat loss: the Tiehm’s Buckwheat. The plant, found only in Nevada, is threatened by a lithium mine that would wipe out nearly all of its natural habitat. The announcement was a huge victory for conservationists who had sounded an alarm on the species and had urged the Biden administration to take action to protect it.
The fight to list a species under the ESA can often take decades, Horning said, hindered by a process that can often be politicized. Critics of the act say it has failed to modernize with the times, and that some species stay listed too long, even after they’ve recovered from the threat of extinction. And some industries — including mining and farming — say the law stymies business.
But removing species from the list too quickly can have devastating consequences.
Since the Trump administration removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list, saying the animal’s population has sufficiently recovered, there has been an “incredible ramp-up” in the hunting and killings around Yellowstone National Park, Malcom said.
Defenders of Wildlife announced in a news release on Friday that 20 gray wolves from the park have been shot and killed by hunters after leaving park boundaries — 15 in Montana, and five in Idaho and Wyoming. Organization president Jamie Rappaport Clark called on the government to reinstate federal protections.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte also petitioned the federal government last month to de-list grizzly bears, saying the animal has “far surpassed population recovery goals.” Activists have warned against such a move, and the FWS itself has said that several challenges remain to fully recover the bear in the lower 48 states.
What you can do
While the act is still widely popular and remains largely successful in helping species recover, there’s plenty of room for improvement, experts say.
Last year, the Biden administration moved to undo a handful of Trump-era curbs that critics said rolled back ESA protections. That’s a step in the right direction, Malcom said, but there’s more the government could do, including to better fund the law to support its efforts, like habitat restoration initiatives.
There are also things Americans can do to help support conservation efforts, including volunteering with environmental groups as well as contacting legislators to express support for conservation initiatives, Horning said.
“Elected officials are responsive to the voices they hear, so if you’re silent on these matters, then they’ll respond to the voices that are the loudest,” Horning said.
Showing support for local leaders and legislation that pushes for conservation can go a long way, experts said.
Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents Boulder, Colorado, reintroduced a resolution last January calling for a national biodiversity strategy, which would encourage government agencies to implement actions and policies to address the ongoing biodiversity crisis. Strategies like that could help bolster the ESA’s efforts too, Malcolm said.
“We need that kind of movement,” Malcolm said. “We need that kind of support that says, ‘this is a national priority,’ because these species depend on it and ultimately, people depend on it. We all depend on nature.”