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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Last Lonely Eagle

Last week the U.S. Dept. of the Interior took the bald eagle off the list of threatened and endangered species.

According to press reports, by the early 1960s widespread use of the pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane (DDT) had nearly exterminated the entire species, and only 25 pairs of eagles were left in Wisconsin.

Today there are more than 1,000 breeding pairs in the Badger State (only Florida and Minnesota have more), and over 200 offspring from Wisconsin nests have been relocated around the nation to start families of their own. Descendants of Wisconsin eagles now circle the skyscrapers of New York City and plunder fish from the Potomac River at Washington D.C.

This is because 35 years ago lawmakers realized that there was a connection between our increased use of pesticides and the deterioration of our environment, and wrote laws to correct it. Their efforts were, of course, opposed by forces who benefited from the manufacture and sale of pesticides.

The opening blow in the nationwide conflict between chemical companies and environmentalists was struck in Madison between Dec. 1968 and May 1969. That's when the Dept. of Natural Resources held hearings on DDT at the request of a new organization called the Environmental Defense Fund. What began as an obscure local hearing grew into the nation's first public examination of the DDT controversy.

By the time it was over, people across the country had watched lawyers from the chemical industry and from the environmental movement introduce all the available scientific evidence about DDT. When the dust settled, lawmakers and the public were convinced that the pesticide should be outlawed (which happened in 1972), and the environmental movement inspired by Aldo Leopold and championed by Gaylord Nelson had acquired visibility, credibility, and clout.

The story of that 1968-69 David and Goliath battle between tree-huggers and corporate suits is told here, in the online edition of our Wisconsin Magazine of History.

So the next time you see a bald eagle soar along the shores of a lake -- whether that's in Alaska, Florida, or up north at the cottage -- you can know that the legislation that saved it began right here in Wisconsin, with the hearings to do away with DDT.

:: Posted in Animals on June 30, 2007

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