Deadline for delisting bald eagles extended

Eagle nest
A federal court judge has delayed the deadline for bald eagles to be taked off the endangered species list.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The recovery of the bald eagle population is nothing short of amazing. In the early 1960s there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs across the lower 48 states. Today that number is estimated at more than 9,000.

One of those nests is on Ed Contoski's land. The Minneapolis man owns seven acres of woods, wetlands and lakeshore in central Minnesota. He wants to develop it and build five homes, but an active bald eagle nest has prevented that.

Ed Contoski
Ed Contoski of Minneapolis owns seven acres of woods, wetlands and lakeshore in central Minnesota. He wants to develop it and build five homes, but an active bald eagle nest has prevented that.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Recently the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation sued the government over the issue on Contoski's behalf. Attorney Damien Schiff says his group is disappointed in the delay, but agreed to it.

"We understood that both in our own client's best interest and in the interest of the property owners who are in similar positions, that it would be best to give the government a little bit more time in order to insure that the delisting is done properly an in accord with the Endangered Species Act," Schiff says.

As an endangered species, a bald eagle's habitat is strictly protected under federal law. That pretty much covers all of Ed Contoski's land.

"No change in habitat within 330 feet (of a nest)," Contoski explains. "I can't even trim or tree or cut a tree that's not the eagle's tree. You can't do anything with it."

MPR News is Reader Funded

Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.

"The eagle's nest has only been there for a dozen years. And we've been on the property since the 1930s."

Contoski thinks that's unfair, especially since his family has owned and used the land for 70 years.

"The eagle's nest has only been there for a dozen years. And we've been on the property since the 1930s. So we're not Johnny-come-latelies," he says.

Contoski hopes when the bald eagle comes off the Endangered Species List, regulations will be relaxed enough so he can develop his land. He thinks the bald eagle should be delisted because in 1999, that's what President Bill Clinton said should happen.

Jody Millar, a biologist who's in charge of bald eagle monitoring for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, remembers that.

"I was on the White House lawn with Bill Clinton when that announcement was made. So I've been working on the issue for a number of years," she says.

Millar says it's important to know how existing laws like the Bald Eagle Act of 1940, and an earlier Migratory Bird Treaty, will continue to protect eagles.

Proposed development map
Ed Contoski's development proposal for the land his family has owned for more than 70 years. The project has been denied because of an active bald eagle nest on the property.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"Just because the bald eagle is no longer an endangered species, it still remains one of our nation's most protected birds -- and rightfully so because it's our national symbol," she says.

Millar says she can't say specifically how federal protection of the bald eagle might be altered, but it's likely the regulatory process will be relaxed.

She says there may be a change in when the Secretary of Interior allows people to remove active nests. A nest is considered active even if it's uninhabited by eagles for as many as five years. The Bald Eagle Act will be the primary law protecting the bird once it's delisted. That law appears to make it more difficult to prove that an eagle has been harmed by activity in its habitat.

Some government officials maintain that even after the bald eagle's status changes, Ed Contoski still won't be able develop his land because it contains a nest. That's something Contoski isn't happy about.

"You're trying to still treat it (a bald eagle) as though it's still under the Endangered Species Act and impose the same regulations," he says. "But if it doesn't qualify for being on the Endangered Species Act anymore, you shouldn't be allowed to impose those same regulations."

Contoski says once the bald eagle comes off the Endangered Species List, he'll propose his development project to state and local officilas. That could happen this summer. If his project is denied, he says he'll go to court again and challenge the remaining protections for bald eagles.