In what is likely to be hailed as one of the greatest conservation success stories of the last 50 years, sources say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is poised to finalize the delisting of the bald eagle from “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act.

Bald eagles — the fierce-eyed, white-headed national symbol — are obviously the star of the success story. While they’ve always been common in Alaska and nonexistent in Hawaii, they were on the verge of being wiped out of the lower 48 states in mid-century, harassed by hunters and their reproductive capabilities hobbled by DDT poisoning.

It’s also a success story for the Endangered Species Act. This legislation, created in 1972, offers a host of protective measures to both find what’s wrong with a species facing extinction, then try to repair that damage. Because of the act, eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly bear population, and the wolves in the Great Lakes region have all been pulled back from disappearing.

“It shows that the Endangered Species act works, if funded properly, and given time,” said Michael Bean from the Environmental Defense.

Two important controversies are brewing surrounding this story however. First will be managing the bird’s recovery nationwide under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and the patchwork of state laws, and second will be the Bush administration’s widely rumored proposal to gut the ESA.

Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group said this victory comes at a price — the loss of eagle habitat protection.

The bird’s nesting grounds were protected as long as the bald eagle was considered a “threatened” species. But the less restrictive eagle protection act does not put eagle habitats off-limits.

Suckling said he worries that without habitat protection, developers will move into critical bald eagle areas, push the birds out and reduce their numbers.

“There is big money to be made in cutting down and developing bald eagle habitat,” he said.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits anyone without a permit from “taking” bald eagles, including their parts, nests and eggs. Its definition of “take” includes: pursuit, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing, capturing, trapping, collecting, molesting and disturbing.

“For the most part, it’s a shooting and hunting statute,” said Nicholas Throckmorton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It does talk a little about nesting and the tree that eagles are in, but it’s not intended to protect habitat or ecosystems.”

Sources include, Danbury News Times, and National Audubon Society.