25 Years After DDT Ban, Bald Eagles, Osprey Numbers Soar

June 13, 1997

On the 25th anniversary of the banning of the pesticide DDT on June 14, the nation’s symbol the bald eagle has seen a ten-fold increase in numbers, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) — and other formerly imperiled species have recorded similar gains. EDF, which filed the original lawsuit that led to the nationwide DDT ban signed June 14, 1972, reported that many birds that were nearly wiped out by the use of DDT 25 years ago, such as the osprey, peregrine falcon, and brown pelican, are rebounding. The DDT ban is viewed as the first major success of the modern environmental movement.

“On this Flag Day, Americans can proudly say their nation’s symbol the bald eagle is flying high because we did something right for the environment,” said Fred Krupp, EDF executive director. “Opponents of the ban falsely predicted economic catastrophe, but their predictions never materialized.”

DDT, an organochloride pesticide, was widely used following World War II and devastated many bird populations by causing the birds to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke during incubation. The founders of EDF brought the original DDT lawsuit in Suffolk County, New York, where they showed that ospreys were having poor reproductive success and eggs that had not hatched contained high concentrations of DDT. The lawsuit ultimately led to a nationwide ban on DDT issued on June 14, 1972 by then-Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator William Ruckelshaus.

  • In 1963, fewer than 500 pairs of bald eagles were found in the lower 48 states. Since that time their numbers have increased ten-fold, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In 1996, more than 5,000 pairs were counted. In August 1995, the eagle was downlisted from endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.
  • In 1975, only 39 breeding pairs of peregrine falcons were counted in the entire lower 48 states, and all of them were in the West. The peregrine population in the eastern U.S. had been completely eradicated by DDT poisoning. In 1996, 993 pairs were counted in the lower 48 states, a more than twenty-fold increase. This included 153 pairs re-established in the eastern U.S. Falcons have made their homes in a number of cities including Baltimore, Boston, Chattanooga, Denver, Phoenix, and Seattle where they nest on ledges of tall buildings.
  • Ospreys have increased from fewer than 8,000 breeding pairs nationwide in 1981 to 14,246 pairs in 1994.
  • The brown pelican was taken off the endangered species list on the East Coast in 1985 because of its expanding population. Although it remains on the list elsewhere, it has steadily increased its numbers and expanded its range.
Public awareness of the perils of DDT first occurred as a result of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring. The banning of DDT a decade later was fiercely resisted by the chemical and agricultural industries. Acceptance of [Rachel] Carson’s view would mean “the end of all human progress, reversion to a passive social state devoid of technology, scientific medicine, agriculture, sanitation. It means disease, epidemics, starvation, misery, and suffering,” said William J. Darby in “A Scientist Looks at Silent Spring,” published in 1962 by the American Chemical Society.

“Contrary to the predictions of DDT’s proponents, the banning of DDT has produced a cleaner, healthier environment for the American people and our wildlife,” said Michael Bean, who heads EDF’s wildlife program.