The bald eagle, a fierce-looking bird with a snowy-white head, has been our national emblem since 1782. Its image appears on many coins and stamps. But our national bird was once at risk of dying out in the contiguous United States. Fortunately, the bald eagle is one of hundreds of species that have made a comeback after gaining protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). To protect plants and animals at risk of becoming extinct, President Richard Nixon signed the ESA into law in December 1973.
The ESA makes it illegal to kill, capture, harm, or trade any species listed as endangered. The law also protects their habitats from destruction. When the ESA was passed in 1973, 78 animals were on the endangered species list. Today, the list consists of about 2,100 species of animals and plants.
Here’s a look at four species that began receiving protection under the ESA 40 years ago. Find out how they first became endangered—and how they’re doing today.
Alligators have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. But by the 1960s, the American alligator was nearly wiped out by hunting. People killed gators for their meat and hide (skin), which they used to make shoes, belts, and handbags. Thanks to protection from the ESA, millions of gators are now on the prowl in the southeastern U.S.
Their crocodile cousins, however, haven’t been so lucky. In fact, the American alligator is still on the endangered species list because it looks so much like the endangered American crocodile. Wildlife officials worry that hunters could confuse the two and put crocodiles at further risk.
In 1963, a survey counted only 416 pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. One reason for the birds’ decline was the widespread use of a pesticide called DDT. The chemical was used by farmers to kill insects on their crops, but it was also harmful to bald eagles and other birds. DDT causes them to lay thin-shelled eggs that crack before chicks can hatch.
In 1972, DDT was banned in the United States. A year later, the ESA increased protections for the wetlands where bald eagles live. Today, the bald eagle is considered a soaring success story. The national bird was removed from the endangered species list in 2007. More than 11,000 breeding pairs can now be found throughout the contiguous United States.
At one time, tens of thousands of grizzly bears roamed the western United States. But much of their habitat was destroyed as the human population grew and spread across the country. People also saw the animals as a threat and began hunting them. By 1975, only about 600 grizzlies remained in the lower 48 states.
Gaining protection under the ESA helped the bears make a big comeback. Today, more than 1,800 grizzlies live in the lower 48 states. But for some people, the recovery is causing a bear of a problem. Grizzlies are wandering into areas where they haven’t lived in years. As a result, they are having more run-ins with their human neighbors. Some experts worry this could put grizzlies back in danger.
WEST INDIAN MANATEE
Manatees, also called sea cows, are slow-moving, curious creatures that like to swim in shallow waters. Unfortunately, this often leads to deadly collisions with boats. Scientists counted only about 740 manatees in the waters off Florida in 1976.
Their numbers have since rebounded to more than 4,800, but manatees are still listed as endangered. Today, the species faces new threats. For example, more than 100 manatees off the east coast of Florida have died from a mysterious illness this year.