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Federal regulators say that as early as next year they may... (Steve Griffin/Tribune file photo)
At extinction's door four decades ago, the American bald eagle is on the verge of completing a comeback for the ages.
    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has confirmed that it likely will soon remove the national symbol from the federal list of endangered and threatened species, perhaps as early as next year.
    The agency is complying with a court order that requires it to make a final decision on the bald eagle's status no later than Feb. 16. To that end, the Fish and Wildlife Service has embarked on what is expected to be a final round of public comment to complete a delisting process that dates back to 1999.
    The proposal has a broad base of support that includes environmental groups such as Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation. Agency officials - who made their initial recommendation to delist last February - now consider it only a matter of time before the bald eagle is officially deemed to be recovered.
    "It's an amazing story," Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Valerie Fellows said Thursday. "It has come out in little nuggets over the last seven years. But this stands as a great success story for conservation. The fact that our nation's symbol no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act is thrilling."
    The bald eagle's prospects in the United States reached their nadir in 1963, when only 400 nesting or reproducing pairs could be found in the lower 48 states. That figure today has blossomed to over 7,000 nesting pairs, with the species now found in every state but Vermont and Hawaii.
    Utah is home to only 10 or 11 nesting pairs, according to state wildlife officials. But that's up from one nesting pair in 1983. And the state actually plays a much greater role in providing bald eagle habitat during the winter, when many more of the birds touch down around the Great Salt Lake for the season.
    "If you step back and look at it, you can see that we've done well with the wintering birds and we're doing really well with the nesting pairs, compared to the time when we had so few," said Bob Walters, the watchable wildlife coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources.
    When the bald eagle became the nation's symbol in 1782, it was thriving, with a population in excess of 100,000. But hunting, lead poisoning from waterfowl hit by buckshot and toxic chemicals - most prominently DDT - took their toll.
    The decline was alarming enough that Congress created the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940. It was placed on the endangered species list 27 years later, following passage of the Endangered Species Act.
    The bald eagle's recovery, however, did not begin in earnest until DDT was banned in 1972. A steady upward population climb led to the downgrading of the species from "endangered" to "threatened" in 1995. Today's numbers are nowhere near the bald eagle's pre-1800 peak, but have reached the point where extinction is no longer a concern.
    Fellows acknowledges that concerns about delisting persist.
    The agency has collaborated with the lower 48 states to fashion management programs for the species. But delisting means that many now-mandatory federal regulations - such as buffer areas for nests and habitats - will become voluntary. Dollars for bald eagle conservation programs also will likely be tougher to come by. And overall protections will inevitably be reduced.
    But Fellows and other Fish and Wildlife Service officials believe the bald eagle's population has reached a point that it can sustain itself in spite of those loosened protections.
    "Eagles don't reach maturity and start reproducing until age 4 or 5. There are thousands more birds between the ages of 1 and 3 that haven't even begun nesting yet. So the population can only go up, which why we're confident that when we do delist, the populations will do well," she said.