Bald eagle's comeback triumph of state policy
HARRISBURG - If there's one piece of environmental news that Pennsylvanians can rally around, it is the Pennsylvania Game Commission's recent announcement that the bald eagle may soon be removed from the state's list of threatened species.
The news that the bald eagle population has made a comeback after several decades of restoration efforts undertaken by the commission stole attention away for a moment from the drumbeat of controversy over the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling on the environment.
It put the spotlight on Pennsylvania's endangered species program. A generation ago, the bald eagle's decline was the most conspicuous example of how environmental ravages were taking a toll on wildlife. The bald eagle was threatened by pollution, hunting and the effects on DDT and other pesticides on the eggs of its young.
The bald eagle's success story comes as two House committees held a hearing last week in Pottsville on legislation to change the process for designating species of fish, wildlife or plants as threatened or endangered as well as the process for designating waters as wild trout streams.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-60, Ford City, would require that decisions by the game commission and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission on the designation of species be approved by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and respective legislative committees. IRRC was created three decades ago to provide more legislative oversight of state agency regulations.
The bill would set up a two-year review of species currently on the list to determine if they should stay on it or not.
A move by the fish commission to classify streams in western Pennsylvania as high quality wild trout streams and consequently impact mining operations is said to be a catalyst for this bill. But efforts to protect freshwater mussels, bats and bog turtles factor in the debate, too.
The bill is generating strong reactions, both pro and con, with concerns being voiced about protecting jobs and the balance of Pennsylvania's biodiversity and natural heritage.
"I am simply asking every agency empowered with the ability to carry out an action that, in this case, has the potential to significantly impact the economy of a community to have a second set of eyes review the decision it makes," said Pyle.
"Allowing nonscientific bureaucrats and politicians veto power over the endangered species list would inevitably slow down efforts to protect these species," said Rep. Steve McCarter, D-154, Glenside.
The game commission's process to move the bald eagle off the threatened list to protected status is instructive in this debate.
The agency's Bureau of Wildlife Management has recommended de-listing the bald eagle because it has achieved a number of goals outlined in the state's management plan for the bird.
These include having at least 150 active nests statewide, successful pairs of eagles in 40 of the 67 counties, at least a 60 percent success rate of known nests and productivity of at least 1.2 eaglets fledged per successful nest for a period of five consecutive years.
The proposal to de-list the bald eagle will be made at a commission meeting later this month and a public comment period will follow. The commissioners will vote on the proposal at a future meeting.
(Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers.)