The Center for Biological Diversity released a report today showing the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia is 11,040 pairs in 2007. This is a nearly 1,300-pair increase from the 2006 estimate of 9,789 pairs. Just 417 pairs remained in 1963.

“The bald eagle’s recovery from the edge of extinction is one of the world’s great conservation success stories,” said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The eagle has returned to every single state in the lower 48, though it has yet to successfully fledge a nestling in Vermont.”

Half a million bald eagles inhabited the United States when the pilgrims arrived. Though the bird was made the U.S. national symbol on June 20, 1782, it suffered terrible abuses due to the mistaken belief that it was a dangerous predator. It was fed to hogs in Maine, shot from airplanes in California, poisoned in South Dakota, and hunted under a 50-cent bounty in Alaska. One hundred thousand eagles were killed in Alaska alone between 1917 and 1950. The state of Georgia declared that eagles, like the “hawk, owl, crow, sparrow, and meadow-lark, are considered to do more harm than good and may be shot at any time.”

These impacts declined somewhat with the passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, but everywhere eagle habitat continued to be logged, grazed, bulldozed and converted to farmland and housing. Eagles declined throughout the lower 48 and were extirpated from many states long before DDT became prevalent. The small populations that survived to the 1950s and 60s suffered catastrophic reproductive failure due to the thinning of their eggshells by DDT. All this began to change when the bald eagle was placed on the first national endangered species list in 1967. The listing (and that of the brown pelican and peregrine falcon) was a major factor in convincing Congress to ban most outdoor uses of DDT in 1972.

Eagle populations rebounded in response to the banning of DDT, protection from killing, habitat protection and restoration, artificial incubation of eggs, fostering of chicks, and reintroduction of eaglets. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed the bald eagle’s status from endangered to threatened in 1995 and is expected to remove it from the threatened list by June 29, 2007.