The Bald Eagle became the national bird of the United States on June 20, replacing the white eagle that previously adorned the national emblem with the only eagle native to North America. This status as a symbol didn’t net the bald eagle much favor from ranchers and livestock owners however, who declared it a varmint fit for extinction in the early 1900s. Bounties of up to two dollars (the equivalent to $25 today), were paid by the feet and by the head. At our nation’s founding, more than a quarter million bald eagles were estimated to have graced our skies. By 1940, when the Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed, more than 100,000 had been killed in the name of ranching and lumber interests. The protection act didn’t extend to Alaska until 1959, and thousands more eagles were killed during those 19 years.
This act didn’t save bald eagles from the clutches of extinction, as by 1963 their nesting pairs numbered just 413 in the entire United States. The culprit was DDT, an insecticide that poisoned eagles and other carnivores when they ingested prey that fed off poisoned insects and led to eggshell thinning. This wasn’t immediately clear at the time, however, and special interest lobbies for ranchers fought tooth and nail against banning the pesticide. Thomas Shepherd Jr. laid out the attitude of these lobbyists in a speech to the Soap and Detergent Association in 1971, in which he labels conservationists and ecologists part of a “disaster lobby.” Shepherd laments “the tragedy is that DDT, while it probably did kill a few birds and fish, never harmed a single human being except by accidental misuse.” To be clear, DDT causes nausea, seizures, tremors, and cancer in humans, and stays in a familial bloodstream for at least three generations. Mr. Shepherd is also playing fast and loose with the term “few” here, when the deaths of millions of birds and fish can be attributed to the use of DDT. To this day, birds still fall from the sky from DDT coursing through their veins, as seen in St. Louis, Michigan. Nor is this lackadaisical attitude toward DDT a relic of the past: Pro-extinction interest groups tout the boons of the chemical as the solution to malaria in Africa. It’s not enough that children become stricken with malaria, they demand that they and their children’s children also be subjected to the toxic effects of DDT. Never mind creating a new pesticide or searching for answers in genetic engineering — no — DDT is the end-all be-all to insect-borne disease, period. Conservationists won out in the end, and today the bald eagle population is at an all-time high of 350,000.
You don’t have to look far to find a modern analogy for the fight to save bald eagles. In our own back yards, the decades-long battle over the Lesser-Prairie Chicken rages on. As of October 6, thanks to a last-minute veto by President Biden, the chicken is protected. Not all would have it this way. Former state representative for New Mexico district 3 Yvette Herrel, a Republican, devoted her time in office to fighting protections for the chicken, calling them “unfair” to ranchers and oil drillers. Her replacement, Democrat Gabe Vasquez, likewise favors the extinction of prairie chickens over the bottom line of agriculture and oil interests, voting against protections for the chicken while declaring his devotion to “ranchers in southeast New Mexico” and “their livelihood.”
The irony of regulation and restriction being used to save a symbol of freedom should not be lost. The bald eagle exists, and in the numbers it does today, because “big government” intervened in people’s freedom. Let’s not sugarcoat conservation as a nicety or paint it as some sort of kumbaya, businessmen holding hands with flower-children everybody-wins movement. Conservation is political, and it demands sacrifice. Unchecked growth and expansion cannot coexist with conservation. I wrote a column a few months ago on why I give a damn about birds, and why I think other people ought to as well. As I write this article, the Fish and Wildlife Service has announced the delisting of 21 species from the endangered species list due to their extinction. One species of fruit bat, ten species of birds, two species of fish and eight species of mussels have been wiped off the face of the Earth, never to be seen again. We don’t have to wonder about what proponents of extinction would have to say about this news, then or now. Going back to Mr. Shepherd, these extinctions can be dismissed with a wave of the hand, after all, “some 100 million species of animal life have become extinct since the world began. Animals come and animals go, as Mr. Darwin noted, and to blame ourselves for evolution would be the height of foolishness.”
The bald eagle was not saved by good intentions. It was saved by hard-line conservationists fighting for their moral view, that the good of preserving natural beauty outweighs the importance of maintaining ever-growing profit margins. Politicians and businessmen come and go. To abdicate our responsibility as humans to protect and steward our home planet is the height of foolishness.