CAMBRIDGE -- On mended wing, a bald eagle named "Hope" swooped away on cue over the marshes of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge yesterday, dramatizing the comeback of America's national bird.
After four months in captivity recuperating from a broken wing, the adult female took flight immediately when released and vanished behind a line of pine trees at the Eastern Shore refuge. The sight thrilled a crowd of government officials, environmentalists and 4-H campers.
Found in a Kent County farm field, Hope was set free at a news conference held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to announce that eagles have recovered enough from pollution, hunting and other abuses to be upgraded from "endangered" to the less dire category of "threatened."
Mollie Beattie, the wildlife service's director, set the tone for the festive occasion by noting that as the nation prepares to celebrate its 218th birthday, "we're also celebrating something that 30 years ago we would have thought impossible.
"Our national symbol, like our nation, has been threatened by pollution, and its environment by human carelessness," Ms. Beattie said. "But we have turned that around."
Driven almost to extinction, the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states has rebounded from 417 nesting pairs of adults in 1963 to more than 4,000 last year. Biologists estimate that there are another 5,000 to 6,000 juvenile eagles.
Officials announced yesterday that the crop of young eagles hatched in Maryland this year -- 191 -- is the largest since state biologists started checking nests 17 years ago.
The offspring came from 159 pairs of adults -- also a record -- nesting in 18 counties.
Dr. Torrey C. Brown, Maryland's secretary of natural resources, said that Hope's return to the wild symbolized how "understanding, effort, patience and sacrifice can bring back a species."
Ms. Beattie and others said the biggest contributor was the banning in 1972 of DDT, a widely used pesticide that entered the food chain and caused reproductive failures in eagles and other birds.
But speakers also credited the 1973 Endangered Species Act, now under attack by property-rights advocates who say that government should compensate people whose land or livelihood is affected.
"Without the protection and recovery actions required under the act, we would never have reached this day," Ms. Beattie said.
Now listed as endangered in 43 states, including Maryland, bald eagles are to be reclassified throughout the lower 48 states, except in parts of the Southwest.
In those dry regions, the bird is so scarce that its endangered status will continue.
Toxic contaminants continue to pose major problems for bald eagle reproduction in a few parts of the country, such as the Great Lakes, but the greatest threats to the continued recovery of the species are shoreline development and human disturbance, officials said.
* Shift in status of the bald eagle, from endangered to threatened, does not remove federal protection.
* The change, announced yesterday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, becomes final some time after a 90-day comment period.
* Hunting, harassment or sale carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and $200,000 fine.
* The eagle's habitat is protected. A no-development buffer zone around nesting sites must be maintained, even on private property.
* The change in the bald eagle's status could give landowners more flexibility in developing property in the general vicinity of nests.