America's symbol of freedom, the bald eagle, will likely find itself independent of government protection under the Endangered Species Act by next week.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court order to make a decision about whether to delist the species by Feb. 16, according to a memo from the U.S. Forest Service.
Bald eagles in the lower 48 states suffered dramatic losses in numbers during the 1960's because of wide spread use of the pesticide DDT.
"DDT was an agent that actually thinned the walls of eggs," said David Catalano, wildlife biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "It made incubation almost impossible."
Catalano expressed concern that activities around Lake Tahoe may deprive eagles of a favorite source of food: fish.
"If we start developing the shorezone more and more, you're going to be pushing them farther away," Catalano said.
Chick death was a major factor in the decimation of the species to just 417 breeding pairs in the continental U.S. in 1963.
Breeding pairs of eagles have been steadily increasing since DDT was banned for most uses in 1972, prompting repeated calls to remove the bird from the endangered species list. Breeding pairs now number over 8,000, according to recent reports, but not everyone is convinced this number is sufficient for de-listing.
"The population has recovered dramatically since the DDT years, but some of us don't think we're quite there yet," according to Pete Bradley, wildlife biologist for Nevada Department of Wildlife.
Even without Endangered Species Act protection, the bald eagle will still receive special status under the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Yet serious doubts have been raised recently by biologists and environmentalists about the effectiveness of act to safeguard eagle populations.
National Public Radio recently obtained a memo from U.S. Forest Service Director Dale Hall to his superiors at the U.S. Department of the Interior. In the document he calls for an expanded definition of the word "disturb" because the interpretation would be "very difficult to enforce without evidence of a dead or injured eagle," according to the memo.
Thus far, Hall's advice to amend the definition of "disturb" has gone unheeded by the Department of the Interior.
Disturbance to the bird can include a wide range of activities not spelled out under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, according to local environmental groups.
"It doesn't necessarily have to be something real aggressive toward the bird," said Ali Chaney, conservation chair for the Lahontan Audubon Society. "There is a lot that can be considered disturbance."
Bald eagles are easily disturbed while nesting, "especially early on in incubation," according to Bradley. He said something as simple as walking, boating or driving by a nest could cause a breeding pair to abandon it.