Here on the lower James River, bald eagles are as common as the historic Virginia plantations that still dominate the scenic green shoreline.
The majestic birds are everywhere sitting on treetops, peering anxiously from nests, soaring above the river in search of fish to eat. On a recent boat trip through these quiet waters, biologists counted 106 eagles in two hours.
No eagles could be found here 20 years ago. They were vanquished mostly by DDT, a pesticide that turned their egg shells wafer-thin.
Now, this meandering stretch of the James River from Hopewell to Fort Eustis supports the largest summer concentration of bald eagles on the East Coast, scientists say. The colony includes at least 25 native nesting pairs and scores of others visiting from New England, Florida and South Carolina.
The dramatic turnaround, part of a national recovery, spurred the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month to announce that the bald eagle no longer should be protected by the Endangered Species Act.
The service hopes to officially "de-list" the eagle on the Fourth of July, 2000.
But leading wildlife researchers in Virginia are questioning the proposal, saying it smacks of political expediency instead of sound science. One such critic is Mitchell Byrd, biology professor emeritus at the College of William and Mary, who has been studying bald eagles for three decades.
Byrd and his colleague, Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at William and Mary, believe eagle populations will suffer significantly throughout Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay without federal protection of their wooded habitat, as provided by the Endangered Species Act.
Developers will be free to build new homes and roads on prime waterfront lots where eagles like to nest without regard to the privacy and delicate conditions that bald eagles need to breed and thrive, the scientists say.
They hope to spark enough protest that the government changes its mind and waits until sufficient habitat is set aside, through private agreements or public ownership, before lifting restrictions in the Chesapeake Bay region.
"This is one of the great success stories in terms of biological recovery, and you hate to be the voice of gloom," says Watts, "but without habitat protection, we're just going to watch this recovery reverse itself."
Adds Byrd: "I don't think the Fish and Wildlife Service is remotely aware of what we're telling them, of what all these biologists are saying. This has just become a big political event for Washington."
Byrd reasons that Fish and Wildlife Service leaders, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, desperately want to shed criticism of the Endangered Species Act especially in Congress, where Republicans for years have sought to scale back the law.
So these administrators are using the bald eagle, a national symbol of freedom and grace, to make a public-relations statement that the law really works and should be left alone, Byrd argues.
Service officials say this view is skewed.
The service's director in southeast Virginia, Karen Mayne, said she, too, is worried that de-listing in the Chesapeake Bay is premature and will hurt eagle populations here. She expressed this in writing, more than a year ago, in a memo to supervisors at regional headquarters in Massachusetts.
Paul Nickerson, chief of endangered species programs in the Northeast Region that includes Virginia, says he personally carried Mayne's comments, along with his own misgivings, to administrators debating the issue last year.
"The big question" discussed in Washington then "was whether certain segments should be exempt" from de-listing, Nickerson said in a phone interview from Hadley, Mass. "But ultimately the decision was that, while there are areas of continued concern including the Chesapeake Bay the overall population was strong enough to support a national action."
In shaping a recovery plan for bald eagles years ago, experts decided that a stable population would include at least 225 nesting pairs in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Today, an estimated 500 nesting pairs live in the watershed, with 227 in Virginia, according to 1999 statistics. Most of the remaining birds are in Maryland, and about two dozen are in Pennsylvania.
But Byrd points out that the recovery plan, which he helped write, also stipulates that at least 25 percent of suitable eagle habitat be secured.
Byrd says this requirement has not been met in Virginia.
"Not even close," he says.
Indeed, prime habitat is disappearing throughout the state by between 15 percent and 20 percent a year, says Byrd, who conducts aerial surveys in Virginia each year to count nests, birds and newborn eagles.
The development trend along the lower James River is especially evident on a map generated in 1991 by the Center for Conservation Biology. It shows how waterfront development in Richmond, Williamsburg and Hampton Roads slowly is replacing pristine shoreline forests.
And with an estimated three million more people expected to settle in the Chesapeake Bay region by 2020, development pressures can only increase, scientists argue.
"You can imagine what this map will look like in 20 years," Watts says. "There will be little suitable habitat left."
In 1997, Watts studied how humans and eagles coexist. His conclusion: not very well.
"Shoreline areas with high human use had low eagle use, and areas with high eagle use had low human use," according to the study.
Byrd says efforts to protect eagles on the lower James are coming to an important crossroads. A new generation is about to take over myriad plantations on Routes 5 and 10, on the northern and southern shores, respectively, in several counties.
Faced with stiff inheritance taxes, and lucrative offers from developers, these new owners will be hard-pressed not to sell their family lands, officials say.
The James River Association, an environmental group, is working with biologists and government officials to purchase easements from plantation owners, so eagles will have a place to go in the future.
The program to buy development rights has been active for about a year. And while no easements have been obtained, negotiations with several landowners are moving ahead, says Patti Jackson, executive director of the James River Association.
In addition, the association is trying to get waterfront owners to plant forested buffers along the river. This way, if owners decide to develop, eagles will at least have a strip of shoreline woodlands for shelter.
Like Byrd, Jackson opposes de-listing in the Chesapeake Bay region and, like the biologist, has written to the Fish and Wildlife Service urging an exemption.
"There seems to be a false sense of security in all this," Jackson says. "As if we can just forget about the eagles now that their numbers have