WHEN THE PILGRIMS landed in Massachusetts in 1620, they encountered a land breathtaking in its bounty and beauty. They wrote of vast virgin forests; of meadows ripe with wild fruit and woods teeming with deer, turkey and mink. And in the cerulean skies, bald eagles, which numbered about half a million, soared with casual majesty.
Already the birds, which range from Canada to Mexico, were revered by the ancient peoples of the continent. With a wingspan wider than the average man is tall, eagles were linked with the sun by natives from the Plains tribes to the Aztecs.
In 1782 — with some grumbling from Benjamin Franklin, who saw the turkey as a more noble animal — Congress designated the bald eagle as our national symbol. We were still at war with Britain, and the birds' fearsome grace seemed to suit. Shortly thereafter, however, we began to destroy them. One hundred years later, they were decimated, and by 1940, endangered. By 1963, only 417 nesting pairs were left on the continent.
We shot bald eagles from airplanes in California, poisoned them in South Dakota and fed them to hogs in Maine. Development encroached on their habitats, and DDT rendered their eggshells so fragile that they cracked under their mothers' weight. Extinction seemed inevitable. The tombstone would have been the Great Seal of the United States, where, rampant, a bald eagle clutches 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other, in its beak a banner with our motto: E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One.
Today we celebrate the bald eagle's renewal. After decades of conservation efforts, about 11,000 pairs nest in the Lower 48 states, and last week the bird was removed from the endangered and threatened species lists. Unfortunately, the federal act that ensured its survival is itself in danger.
Last month, the Supreme Court sided with developers and the administration, ruling that the federal government was not bound by the Endangered Species Act and could give states authority to issue water pollution permits in sensitive habitats. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled otherwise, saying that the Environmental Protection Agency had an obligation to safeguard endangered species, something that could not be done if a state took over permitting.
And a proposal prepared at the behest of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne suggests weakening habitat protections and, worse, ceding some authority over vulnerable species to the states. But one reason the bald eagle rebounded is that the states lacked the power to determine its fate. How disingenuous that Kempthorne celebrated the eagle's thriving population last week, while seeking to weaken the act that made it possible.