How a Law That Failed to Protect Eagles Could Offer a Lesson to Save Honeybees

The Bald Eagle Protection Act, signed into law 75 years ago on June 8, 1940, was well-intended. A multi-pronged assault on the raptors was taking its toll – habitat loss, lead-shot poisoning, and bounty-hunting by ranchers and fishermen all contributed to a growing threat. (Click here to see how this played out in Alaska.)

Congress passed, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, the act to outlaw the “taking” of eagles and their eggs, disruption of their nests, or sale or possession of eagle feathers or parts.

It didn’t work. Bald eagle populations accelerated their decline, for reasons that Congress, wildlife officials, and FDR couldn’t possibly anticipate.

Throughout the late 1930’s Swiss chemist Paul Müller labored to find the right mix of synthetic chemicals to control moths. Not only did dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane do the trick, but Müller’s lab work found it was effective against lice, houseflies, beetles, and the dreaded mosquito. Müller’s employers, J.R. Geigy AG, applied for the first DDT permit about two months before the Eagle Act passed.

But bald eagles continued to decline. So did hummingbirds, robins, ospreys, pelicans and peregrine falcons. Years of science, met with serious blowback from the chemical industry, eventually proved that DDT was thinning birds’ eggshells, not to mention causing impacts in fish, humans, and other mammals. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring drew international attention to the threat, and in the US, DDT was outlawed on the last day of 1972. Bald eagles, ospreys, brown pelicans and peregrine falcons have all since staged remarkable comebacks from the Endangered Species list.The rest is natural and human history. Cheap to produce and an effective defense against lice-borne typhus and mosquito-borne malaria, DDT quickly became a fixture in farm fields, living rooms, and World War II battle theaters. Müller became a science rock star, garnering a Nobel in 1948 and – wait for it – membership in the Pest Management Professional Hall of Fame in 2004.

Which brings us to today’s threat to other ecologically priceless wildlife – pollinators. Honeybee populations have been in freefall for more than a decade. Like the threats to eagles, the potential causes are multiple: loss of habitat and native plants, parasites, and a mix of insecticides and fungicides. Newest, and most notable among the suspects, are neonicotinoid pesticides. Like DDT, neonics were developed in the 1980’s and 1990’s and welcomed as a step forward, since they were thought to be effective on insect pests but relatively benign on non-target wildlife and ecosystems. Today they are a billion-dollar agricultural product, ubiquitous on common crops like corn and soybeans.

In 2014, President Obama ordered the creation of a federal pollinator strategy. Its first draft came out last month, calling for everything from creating bee-friendly habitat to further study on neonics and other agricultural chemicals. The first edition of the strategy, issued in May, outlines a multi-year process for re-examining use of neonics.But mounting evidence shows that neonicotinoids may be part of the frontal assault on bees and other pollinators. In 2013, the European Union banned the use of three of the most contentious types of neonicotinoids, citing a clear and immediate risk.

If the EPA and other federal agencies concur with other studies on the potential harm of neonicotinoids, the US will issue assessments for neonics in 2016 and 2017, and may or may not take action until 2018 to 2020. All of this will take place under a new president who may or may not take interest in protecting bees.

That timetable may work. Or not. Or, with a president with little more than a year left in office and a hostile Congress, it may be a moot point.

But perhaps a more important point is that in 1940, the President and Congress took action on the known threats to eagles. They didn’t know about the chemical risk from DDT. If neonics are as big a threat as the science suggests, the current president and Congress won’t have ignorance as an excuse for waiting.