Each winter, Missourians are treated to a majestic sight as the American bald eagle returns to overwinter in our state.

Each winter, the Missouri Department of Conservation promotes viewing with Eagle Days events in locations throughout the state.

The Department of Conservation and the citizens of Stella invite us to join our fellow Southwest Missourians as we flock to Stella’s Veteran’s Memorial Park for The Festival of Eagles from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25. As many as 50 eagles have sometimes been seen during past festivals in Stella.

The privilege of viewing our national symbol in the wild is a prime example of the success of the Endangered Species Act.

The bald eagle became one of the first species protected by the Endangered Species Act when it was signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon. At that time, bald eagles had become increasingly rare. They were victims of habitat destruction, trapping, shooting and poisoning, as well as nesting failure caused by DDT.

Nesting pairs of bald eagles had completely disappeared from Missouri. In the 1980s, MDC, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, released 74 young bald eagles around the state to reestablish them as nesters.

Bald eagles mate for life and return to the same nest year after year. In Missouri, they favor sycamore, cottonwood and bald cypress trees around our large reservoirs. Today MDC estimates the number of nesting pairs of eagles has increased from zero to about 200. One or two nests are found in many Missouri counties with the Truman Lake region being their favorite habitat.

The bald eagle rebounded because of the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act and efforts of state agencies such as the Missouri Department of Conservation. In 2007, the bald eagle’s recovery was declared a success, and it was removed from the Endangered Species list.

The Endangered Species Act does so much more than protect bald eagles. It is the strongest law for protecting biodiversity in the world. Its mission is to prevent extinction of endangered U.S. plants and animals, to increase their numbers with eventual recovery and removal from the endangered species list. The law prohibits harm to listed species and crucial habitat.

The Endangered Species Act has demonstrated that it works. Without it, 227 U.S. species would likely have become extinct, and the bald eagle would have disappeared from the lower 48 states. Currently, the act protects more than 1,600 plant and animal species with more than a 95 percent success rate at preventing extinction.

Unfortunately, the Endangered Species Act is now under attack under the August 2019 regulatory reform package crafted by President Donald Trump’s administration. This change allows the costs of safeguarding endangered species to be weighed, which opens crucial habitat for developers to bulldoze, mine, drill and log. Species that are designated as “threatened” but not yet in the endangered category will no longer receive any level of protection.

Wildlife awaiting help will face longer life-threatening delays. As of 2019, the success story of the American bald eagle will be much more difficult to achieve for additional species of U.S. wildlife.

There is an undeniable thrill in viewing wildlife in its natural habitat that helps explain the strong public support for the Endangered Species Act. And it’s a thrill that draws thousands of Missourians to Eagle Days events. Bald eagles will again be strutting their stuff in Stella come January. I plan to be there.

Gary Smith is a retired district forester for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Contact him at gary.susanna67@gmail.com

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