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The once-rarely spotted American symbol has reclaimed its place along South Carolina waterways and is now a common suburban sight. The majestic raptor that became the emblem of the Endangered Species Act, hasn't been on that list for a decade. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The bald eagle swooped in low over the Summerville subdivision pond, its wings wide and talons out.

Every other fishing bird stilled — the mallard ducks, the egret, the heron.

Not because the eagle was a stranger. This raptor has become a pond regular, perching in a high branch over the water. They stilled because it was simply the biggest, baddest bird around.

The once-rarely spotted American symbol has reclaimed its place along South Carolina waterways and is now a common suburban sight. More bald eagles fly overhead than have been in the skies in a very long time.

The majestic raptor that became the emblem of the Endangered Species Act, hasn't been on that list for a decade. It's considered fully recovered.

That makes the bald eagle one lucky species, but the act itself is now threatened, conservationists say.

Endangered species

More than 440 pairs of bald eagles nest in the state right now — up from 300 nine years ago and up from 200 in 2005.

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The bald eagle has made a strong recovery in South Carolina. More than 440 pairs of bald eagles nest in the state right now — up from 300 nine years ago and up from 200 in 2005. Provided/Cathy Murphy

In 1977, when today's S.C. Department of Natural Resources took on the recovery of the newly listed federal endangered species, there were only 13 pairs.

The goal then was — somehow — to reclaim 200 nests, considered to be the pivotal number to maintain the species. In a successful nesting, the female tends to lay a clutch of two to four eggs.

Critical habitat restrictions and other protections provided by the act spurred the recovery in South Carolina and elsewhere across the lower 48 states where the bird had dwindled.

So the eagle won't be affected — at least immediately — by changes that loosen the rules creating protections such as critical habitats, changes that have been finalized by the Trump administration. The revisions are now under a mandated public review and environmental groups are suing to stop them.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross championed the revisions as fitting "squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals."

The Southern Environmental Law Center, among other conservation groups, contend the revisions undermine the scientific foundation of the regulations, and "along with other environmental rollbacks threaten natural ecosystems and communities across the country,”said Ramona McGee, law center staff attorney.

The changes could result in a dicier future for any number of nearly 500 animal species and more than 800 plant species currently considered by South Carolina to be the most threatened — creatures that include mammoths such as the nearly extinct right whale.

The contrast between the eagle and the whale couldn't be starker.

The North Atlantic right whale, which winters off South Carolina and the rest of the Southeast, is so close to extinction that some say it might already be doomed — threatened by fishing line entanglements and ship strikes, among other factors.

Fewer than 450 whales are known to be left in the wild, but more critically, fewer than 100 females. Eight have washed up dead in Canada so far this year; four of them females. The situation is so critical that the environmental advocate Oceana has taken on saving the whale as a priority issue, pushing legislative and legal fixes.

"This whale could be the first large whale to go extinct in the Atlantic Ocean in centuries," said Whitney Webber, an Oceana campaign director. The administration's revisions to critical habitat laws could strip restrictions from the fishing and shipping industries.

"We do not want to roll back any protection for the right whale right now," Webber said.

Habituating

The bald eagle's return is a story still being written. The challenge for the bird now is trying to get along — with people. 

The eagle's numbers in South Carolina today are astounding. The best historical count of pairs was 500, by the Audubon Society before the collapse of the species in the mid-1900s. At more than 400 pairs today, the bird likely is at or near the carrying capacity in a far more crowded state, birdwatchers say.

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Bald Eagles are fed at The Center for Birds of Prey on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in Awendaw. The once-endangered raptors have made a strong comeback in the Palmetto State. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Most of the raptors nest in the state's rapidly urbanizing coast. Today, an eagle nest that's considered in the way can be removed, if a federal permit is secured and the nest is not in active use.

As federal protections for the birds are scaled back and building continues to knock down woods and develop waterfront, getting used to living near humans is the future for the fierce-eyed predator — as with any number of other species.

The ones that habituate will survive.

One of those active nests is tucked in the woods behind the growing Carnes Crossroads development. The woods are part of the acreage for the Nexton development between Summerville and Moncks Corner, one of the hottest growth clusters in the state. More than 20,000 houses have been built or are planned in an area little more than 5 miles in diameter.

More people, cars, dogs, noise — eagles are naturally skittish creatures that flee when there's a disruption gets too close to the nest, said Emily Davis, who conducts an annual midwinter bald eagle survey for South Carolina Audubon.

Older birds with established nests have learned to put up with the disruptions. Their fledged young haven't.

"Will they be able to have success breeding with their environment changing? The younger birds, I think we will see more of them moving out," Davis said. "When you throw that in with the danger of of gutting the Endangered Species Act, that throws a whole new ball into the ring."

The impending changes to the Endangered Species Act wouldn't affect how the eagle is managed in South Carolina, said Amy Tegeler, DNR bird conservation coordinator.

Despite the proposed changes, the raptor — as well as a number of other bird species — would still be protected by federal laws such as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as well as state laws.

Meanwhile, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act moving through Congress would increase funding to the state for researching and managing non-game species, from a current $650,000 to as much as $13.5 million per year.

DNR spokesman David Lucas said such an increase "would be a real game changer for what we are able to do in terms of research and management for a whole host of creatures — many of which either are dwindling in numbers or ones that we don’t know enough about how they are doing to say."

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.