MONTPELIER, Vt. – On Thursday, the bald eagle was removed from Vermont’s endangered species list as part of its first update in seven years.
Wildlife experts say the bald eagle’s departure from the Vermont Endangered and Threatened Species List suggests there could be hope for other species that have also borne the brunt of humanity’s environmental neglect.
“The bald eagle is one of the original species listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act,” said Margaret Fowle, a conservation biologist with Audubon Vermont. “It was kind of a wake up call with this decline that the bald eagles went through for us to realize some of the things we’re doing to the environment and how they affect the wildlife and the ecosystem.”
Prior to her work with Audubon Vermont, Fowle coordinated the state’s recovery effort for bald eagles and Peregrine falcons. Back then, there was no permanent nesting population in Vermont.
When discussing the population’s decline, Fowle pointed to the widespread use of DDT. The chemical was used widely throughout the 20th Century as a household and agricultural pesticide, but later studies revealed its harmful impact on wildlife and birds in particular.
“That chemical caused a lot of species, especially the ones at the top of the food chain to have incredibly drastic declines,” Fowle said. “It happened very quickly for species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.”
The gradual repopulation of bald eagles throughout the state is thanks in part to a Federal focus on saving America’s national bird. Locally, sites like the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation at the Vermont Institute of Science have seen the fruits of that labor.
“Back 20 years ago, it was a rarity to see a bald eagle, and now we get several a year in rehab,” said Grae O’Toole, director of the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation. “As patients, there’s not really much of a difference aside from the scare factor – having a really, really big bird to restrain and medicate every day.”
O’Toole said the center takes in over 1,000 birds a year, all of them injured or orphaned. When a bald eagle comes in, there’s also a lot more paperwork involved.
“Because of the permitting that we had, and the laws and regulations around having eagles in care, we are legally obligated to notify the state when we’ve received a bald eagle for rehabilitation, just so that they’re aware there is an injured eagle in our care,” O’Toole said.
The monumental effort at the Federal level to bring bald eagles back is certainly owed in part to its symbolic value.
“Bald eagles are sort of a symbol for all these things, an Endangered Species Act success story, recovering an environment where DDT no longer exists, and for Vermont, we don’t really know how many bald eagles we had historically,” Fowle said.
Experts like Rosalind Renfrew, Wildlife Diversity Program Manager with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, say the ‘billion-dollar question’ is whether that same kind of response will become a necessity for other species as climate change threatens the stability of our ecosystem.
“Are we going to start seeing more of these to the point where it’s going to be really hard to keep up?” Renfrew wondered. “I think the answer to that, and this is the side of things that doesn’t always get all the attention, is supporting species before they get on to the endangered list.”
The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s latest changes to the Endangered and Threatened Species List can be found here.