- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

CONCRETE, Wash. - So many bald eagles swoop down from the treetops to pluck their breakfast from the Skagit River, you wouldn’t think they were a threatened species.

In biological terms, they aren’t. But because they are found in every one of the lower 48 states, it’s taking the federal government longer than expected to get them reclassified — an initiative the Clinton administration pitched 4 years ago.

“It’s like Pandora’s box. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s not when you start delving into it,” said Cindy Hoffman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman in the agency’s Washington office.

Once the government says an animal is ready to be taken off the list, it usually takes about a year for it to happen. That is because most federally protected species inhabit relatively small areas, Miss Hoffman said.

The bald eagle’s territory, by comparison, stretches over much of the North American continent, with tens of thousands living in Alaska and British Columbia. The most recent survey in the contiguous United States counted nearly 6,500 nesting pairs in 2000 — up from 417 in 1963.

Drafting a post-recovery plan for such a huge range requires updated counts in each state and directives that factor in eagle-protection rules certain states already have in place — rendering a one-size-fits-all transition impossible.

Despite its status as the nation’s symbol, eagles frequently were hunted throughout most of the 1800s and early 1900s, in many cases by ranchers who complained the birds preyed on their sheep. Shoreline development and logging led to widespread habitat loss, and after World War II, use of DDT and other pesticides that weakened eggshells sent the bald eagle’s birthrate plummeting.

The first move to protect the majestic birds came in 1940 with the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act, later revised to include the golden eagle. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT, saying the bald eagle was teetering on the brink of extinction outside Alaska.

In 1978, Fish and Wildlife listed the bald eagle as “endangered” in 43 states and “threatened” in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. By 1995, the species had rebounded enough to be reclassified as “threatened” throughout the lower 48.

Every year from November to March, as many as 500 bald eagles flock south to the Skagit River Basin, drawn by spawning chum salmon. Several other western Washington rivers lure impressive numbers of eagles, including the Sauk, Siuattle, Skykomish, Stillaguamish and Nooksack.

Wintering eagles spread far and wide — from Northern California to Montana to Arizona — but no state hosts more of them year after year than Washington. Some stay year-round, but most migrate north to breed.

In mid-January, at the peak of this year’s wintering season, one rafting guide counted about 150 bald eagles on a 5-mile stretch of the Skagit River.

“People get kind of jaded after seeing 100 of them,” Dave Button, owner of Pacific Northwest Float Trips, said while paddling a group of eagle-watchers down the lower Skagit. “They say, ‘Oh, what’s next?’ We get spoiled on this river.”

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