Delisting of bald eagles should prompt review of law

Landowners are destroying homes and habitat for eagles and other endangered species.

In 1967, there were fewer than 500 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, and our national bird was in danger of disappearing from much of the United States.

Though the eagles were never in danger of extinction - the vast majority, more than 100,000, were in Alaska and Canada - Americans understandably wanted to protect their national symbol.

Today, the bald eagle is flying high. On June 29, the bald eagle in the lower 48 was officially removed, or delisted, from the Endangered Species Act. Yet delisting the bald eagle has been a decade-long process that shows how even the most well-intentioned policy can be overcome by politics and ulterior motives.

The bald eagle should have been removed from the endangered and threatened list in the early-to-mid 1990s, when it surpassed the goal of around 3,000 pairs in the lower 48 states. Since then, the population has continued to grow at the very healthy rate of about 8 percent annually, reaching at least 9,921 pairs in the lower 48 this year. Still, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been unwilling to part with its best public relations tool and a powerful means to control land-use.

Take the case of Ed Contoski, co-owner of 18 lakeshore acres in central Minnesota. To provide for his retirement, in 2004 Contoski decided to sell his property to family members. The only option for raising the $425,000 needed to purchase Ed's half-share was dividing the property's northern seven acres in to five residential lots and selling them. Then authorities informed Ed that a bald eagle nest on his property prevented all development. Faced with the ESA's harsh penalties, $100,000 and/or one year in jail for harming an eagle or habitat, Ed had to abandon his plans.

To recover use of his land, Contoski sued the Interior Department for failing to delist the eagle. He won his case last year, forcing the federal government to finally set the eagle free of the ESA.

Now that the eagle is at last removed from the list, we will surely hear that it is an ESA success story. However, the ESA isn't the primary reason you can see a bald eagle soaring in every state but Hawaii.

"Nearly everyone agrees that the key to the eagle's resurgence - even more so than the Endangered Species Act - was the banning of the use of the insecticide DDT in this country in 1972," notes the National Audubon Society. DDT led to widespread reproductive failures and it was actually banned one year prior to the ESA's passage.

Many in the environmental lobby have lost sight of the Endangered Species Act's ultimate purpose, which is to recover species to the point they no longer need protection, not to keep healthy species wards of the federal government. Even after the delisting, eagles will still be protected by the Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act. But who is protecting property owners like Ed Contoski?

Most landowners are proud to have rare species on their land. Tragically though, the government has turned them into unwitting enemies of these animals. A quiet war is going on as people try to rid their land of endangered species and habitat so they can avoid being clobbered by the ESA.

"I've seen eagle's nests where people climbed up the trees and knocked them out," stated Jodi Millar, a former federal bald eagle recovery coordinator. Landowners are destroying homes and habitat for eagles and other endangered species because the government punishes people who harbor these species.

With the bald eagle now safe, let's reform the Endangered Species Act to harness the goodwill of America's citizen conservationists. It's time for a new, more effective environmentalism based on cooperation and positive incentives, not conflict and punishment.

Brian Seasholes is an adjunct scholar at Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank. Readers may write to him at Reason Foundation, 3415 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 400, Los Angeles, Calif. 90034; Web site: www.reason.org.