Corrigendum for Above the Law: Endangered Eagles edition

[Yes, I am getting exceedingly lazy with these titles of late.]

About a month ago, Above the Law published an article about eagle feathers. More specifically, it discussed whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby (which recognized the company’s claim for a  religious exception to secular laws) will be extended to Native American tribes who wish to use eagle feathers in religious ceremonies despite their protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. In the form of an aside, the article made a good point:

There is an irony here, of course. The eagle is not endangered because their feathers were used by the natives of North America for centuries before any European or African set foot on this land. The eagle is endangered because some jackass from ‘Murica wanted to put its beak on the wall of his home in a sprawling subdivision that has good highway access to the WalMart.

And while Above the Law mostly gets this story right, it vastly oversimplifies why we have laws that say you can’t just go shoot an eagle. Eagles were never really in trouble because too many hunters wanted a trophy; per the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), they were categorized as an Endangered Species for a litany of reasons:

  • Decline in prey numbers (waterfowl, shorebirds, carrion, etc.)
  • When they switched to small livestock (e.g. chickens & lambs), farmers targeted them as marauders
  • Land use changes led to loss of nesting habitat
  • Widespread application of DDT caused them to produce thin eggshells that could not protect unhatched eaglets
  • Carrion increasingly contained lead from hunters’ bullets

Obviously, none of these observations alter the fact that — as Above the Law argued — European colonizers are the primary culprits here. But it’s still important to understand why eagles almost disappeared,* because even though that species has been brought back from the brink,** countless others still hold on for dear life. Elizabeth Kolbert has argued that humans are set to precipitate the sixth great extinction event in the history of our planet.

As I hope this article makes clear, we can’t just point at one type of activity, done by those people over there, and decide that’s the thing that has to stop. It’s not just one thing. It’s everything. If we want to conserve our planet’s fellow travelers, humans will have to make fundamental changes to our relationship with the world around us. And if we don’t, we might soon find ourselves on a very lonely planet.


*There were fewer than 500 nesting pairs left in the continental U.S. when they were declared endangered, down from 50,000 two hundred years before.

**FWS now estimates there are nearly 10,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48.

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