Wyoming’s bald eagle population has reached a new high of more than 185 breeding pairs.

The rebound has staggered ornithologists who predicted much lower recovery rates when the birds were first granted federal protection in 1967.

The bald eagle population is soaring nationally, as well, with the number of breeding pairs in the lower 48 states climbing from a low in 1963 of 417 to more than 9,700 today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday.

The strong recovery offers evidence to some scientists that federal protection of the birds under the Endangered Species Act should be lifted.

“They’re not facing extinction, and they are not threatened with moving into the endangered classification,” said Bob Oakleaf, who oversees nongame species for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “So we might as well reserve that act and the money and heartache and conflict that goes with it to the species that need it.”

The decline and resurgence of Wyoming’s bald eagles span more than a century.

It’s difficult to estimate eagle numbers before the arrival of Anglo-American settlers, because the settlers both helped and hurt the birds.

Eagles benefited from the creation of reservoirs for irrigation and the stocking of fish species not indigenous to the state.

Even more influential, however, were poisons including strychnine, introduced in the 1800s, to kill wolves and other predators known to feed on livestock. Eagles consumed baited meat or carcasses of dead predators and were unintentionally killed.

Trophy hunting and poisonous lead shotgun ammunition used until the 1980s to hunt waterfowl also contributed to eagle mortality.

By the time DDT, the infamous eggshell-weakening pesticide, arrived in Wyoming, the eagle decline was well under way.

“They used DDT in Wyoming fairly heavily in croplands in the ’40s,” Oakleaf said. “By then it was just icing on the cake.”

Despite the unwitting boost from early farmers and ranchers, Wyoming’s eagle population by 1978 had dropped to 35 breeding pairs.

Most of the remaining birds lived in the greater Yellowstone region, including 15 breeding pairs inside Yellowstone National Park. But severe weather in Yellowstone during the 1970s and 1980s limited the breeding productivity of those eagles. A handful that lived on private land around Jackson formed the nucleus from which most of the state’s recovered population eventually blossomed.

Small groups of eagles in the Sheridan area, possibly migrants from Montana, and in the Saratoga area probably also helped repopulate the state, Oakleaf said.

The population in the Jackson areas, far greater than anyone predicted when recovery efforts began, is so dense that scuffles and deaths between the highly territorial birds are frequent.

But those same birds face some of the most rapid habitat destruction and human encroachment because of development, Oakleaf said.

Fortunately, he said, conservation groups are working to protect open space from development, and bald eagles seem to be increasingly at ease in the presence of humans, possibly because more young birds are forced to live in developed areas.

“There are signs that they are showing increasing tolerance to human activity,” Oakleaf said.

The future of Wyoming’s bald eagle population is unclear, Oakleaf said, except that it’s probably here to stay.

The population growth seems to be slowing, but Oakleaf said he won’t say that the birds have reached their capacity.

In the meantime, the efforts to lift federal protection for bald eagles continues. The current debate centers on fine nuances in the rules that will guide management of the birds in the future.

Conservationists are concerned that the rules will be too flimsy to offer meaningful protection for the long term.

Oakleaf noted that numerous other laws will remain in place to protect bald eagles when federal protection is lifted. After all, he pointed out, they are the national symbol.