The founders of the United States chose the magnificent and pervasive bald eagle—a bird unique to North America and sacred to many Native American tribes—as a symbol of their proud and flourishing new nation, but by 1967, it was on the brink of extinction.
When the combination of habitat loss, pesticide use and other factors landed it on the endangered species list, the country rallied. Conservation organizations, indigenous tribes, businesses, individual citizens and government at all levels worked together to strengthen the numbers of this national icon, which had dwindled to 417 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states, despite the fact that the species was doing well in Alaska and Canada.
Captive breeding programs, law enforcement efforts, habitat protection around nest sites and the banning of the toxic pesticide DDT all contributed to the recovery plan, spearheaded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, the bald eagle is again soaring high—just five years after being removed from the list some 10,000 pairs now make their nests in the lower 48.
More than 40 percent of the world’s millions of species have similarly suffered and are now in critical condition, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature; new threats like climate change make their futures ever more tenuous. Yet the bald eagle’s stunning comeback proves that being labeled an endangered species isn’t necessarily a death sentence. The California condor, peregrine falcon and black-footed ferret are among many animals that have returned from the verge of extinction via protective actions taken under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Other decimated populations targeted by international conservation efforts, from Rwanda’s mountain gorillas to India’s wild tigers, also show encouraging signs of recovery. Rhinos, for example, are returning to the African wilderness thanks to community-based, public/private conservation programs that fight poaching, habitat loss and other human threats to this prehistoric creature. Since its launch in 1997, the World Wildlife Fund’s African Rhino Programme estimates that the white and black rhino population on the continent has more than doubled, from approximately 11,000 to 25,000.
For wildlife success stories across America, visit fws.gov/endangered. To learn of progress among other global species and how to help, explore Priority Species at Panda.org. April Thompson regularly contributes to Natural Awakenings. Connect at AprilWrites.com.