With the removal of the bald eagle from the federal endangered species list, Missourians might wonder how the nation's living symbol is doing in their home state.
The answer, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, is "fantastic." Conservation Department Ornithologist Andy Forbes conducts regular counts of bald eagle nests to track the once-troubled species' progress.
As recently as 1981, Missouri did not have a single productive bald eagle nest. This year's count topped 150.
"That is a minimum," said Forbes. "We can't find all the nests in a particular year and the number just keeps growing. Last year's count showed 120."
Forbes said state officials no longer attempt to find all bald eagle nests.
Instead, they track the success of those already known and those reported by citizens or discovered in the course of other wildlife management activities.
This gives the Conservation Department a way of discovering nesting problems or a decline in nest numbers.
"At one time, eagles were rare enough that it was important to keep track of every nest," said Forbes. "But it is not practical today to comb every square mile from the air or on the ground trying to ferret out every nest. At this point it is enough to track the bald eagle population generally and react if we see evidence of a problem."
The bald eagle's recovery in Missouri, as in the rest of the nation, is the result of two main factors.
One is the banning of DDT, a broad-spectrum insecticide that reduced nesting success of birds of prey.
The other factor is a reduction in the illegal killing of eagles.
"People used to shoot bald eagles on sight because they thought they killed livestock," said Forbes. "That was not true. Bald eagles are primarily scavengers and thieves. They feed on carrion or steal food from other birds of prey, but for the most part they are not interested in tackling any moderately large, live animal."
Social pressure and hefty fines also have helped stop the illegal killing of eagles.
Forbes said Missouri has ample habitat for several hundred nesting pairs of bald eagles.
They build massive nests in tall trees, almost always within a few hundred yards of large lakes or rivers. Every region of Missouri has at least some of this habitat, and eagles are known to nest statewide.
Bald eagles sometimes build their nests as little as a mile from other active eagle nests.
With thousands of miles of shoreline along rivers and lakes in Missouri, the potential for bald eagle population growth is huge.
"I would never expect bald eagles to be as common in Missouri as turkey vultures are," said Forbes. "But if we continue on the course we are on now, the day will come when anyone can see an eagle almost anywhere in the state."
This raises the question of whether the bald eagle should remain on Missouri's endangered list.
Conservation Department Endangered Species Coordinator Peggy Horner said the agency is considering several species -- including the bald eagle -- for delisting.
"We are in the initial stages of considering whether the bald eagle should be a candidate for delisting," said Horner, "When that happens, the public and other government agencies will have opportunities to comment."