The Interior Department released new rules today that will allow people to disturb or kill some bald or golden eagles while carrying out otherwise lawful activities, such as operating airports or electric utilities.
The rules seek to fill a hole in regulations created when Endangered Species Act protections were removed for the bald eagle two years ago. Protections under the ESA allowed for some permits to "take" eagles incidentally, as long as it was part of an otherwise lawful activity. But there was no such provision when the eagle moved to protection under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials said the new permits would still provide stringent protections for the birds but keep the growing population of bald eagles from curtailing other vital human activities.
"We have tried to make this as seamless a transition from ESA to the eagle act as we could," said Paul Schmidt, assistant director for migratory birds at the agency.
The Interior department delisted the eagle in 2007 after its population made a significant rebound -- going from about 400 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states in the early 1960s to an estimate of more than 10,000 breeding pairs today.
But the agency faces a challenge in managing golden eagles. Golden eagles were first protected because of the resemblance to bald eagles, which poachers shot for trophies, but are now facing their own problems. Bald eagle numbers have continued to rise since the ESA delisting, but the golden eagle population is not expanding and may be in decline, according to the service.
There is less scientific data to understand the population trends of golden eagles, but agency scientists estimate that the population is down from 100,000 birds several decades ago to about 30,000 now.
"Those are raw estimates, but it is enough to be concerned about the current status," Schmidt said. "But it is not low enough to be listed [under the Endangered Species Act]."
The new permits will allow people to proceed with real estate development or other activities that could potentially harm or disturb eagles. A more limited permit will allow the removal of nests that create safety concerns, such as those near airports. Deliberate killing of eagles is still outlawed.
The service will cap the permits so that the bald eagle population cannot be reduced by more than 5 percent of the estimated annual regional productivity -- a formula recommended by a peer-reviewed scientific analysis.
Scientists and environmentalists have long agreed that the bald eagle's population numbers rebounded enough to make it qualify for delisting from the ESA. The bird had more than doubled its recovery goals by the time it was delisted. The controversy during the delisting process came as the agency tried to hammer out the plan for how to protect the bird once it no longer came under the wing of ESA.
The 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits taking or disturbing eagles, but there was some contention over what "disturb" would mean. Much of that was resolved before the delisting of the bird when agency officials released a rule -- hailed by environmentalists -- defining "disturb."
That rule said disturbance would encompass any action likely to cause injury or nest abandonment and any action that might agitate the eagles' normal breeding, feeding or sheltering patterns. That definition does not change under the new rules released today.