The 146 bald eagles spotted in Maryland during an annual midwinter survey was the fourth highest on record since the survey began in 1979, a year when observers recorded only 44 sightings of the nation's symbol.

The American eagle was placed under protection of federal law in 1967 because it was in danger of extinction. The eagle population had been declining since the 1940s largely because the pesticide DDT interfered with its reproduction. The EPA ordered a halt to DDT use in 1972.

In recent years, the population of eagles has grown in America, which has prompted discussion on a national level about whether to reduce the eagle’s protected status from endangered to threatened, wildlife researchers said.

“Within a year or so, I suspect the status will change,” said Glenn Therres, supervisor of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources bald eagle project. “Breeding populations have climbed in the Chesapeake Bay region, at least, to the point that the species could be downlisted to threatened.”

In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional office in Minneapolis sent a proposal to reclassify the bald eagle under the Endangered Species Act to the agency's office in Washington, D.C. There it will be reviewed and forwarded to agency director Mollie Beattie for her consideration.

Karen Steenhof, leader of the Pacific Bald Eagle Recovery team in Boise, Idaho, and national coordinator for the midwinter count, said she hoped bald eagles would continue to be heavily protected even if reclassified.

“Even though a lot of people will agree that the eagle is not on the brink of destruction, it is still a threatened species,” Steenhof said. “My concern is that we don't accept the false impression that we are out of the woods. There is more to be done to ensure the (population) trend doesn’t reverse.”

In Maryland this year, 72 adult bald eagles were observed, 59 immature eagles and 15 others whose age could not be aged because of poor lighting.

The largest concentration was at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, where 62 eagles were found. Fifty-three bald eagles and one golden eagle were seen at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County and 31 bald eagles were spotted along the Susquehanna River.

Therres said the eagles were spotted throughout the tidal areas of Maryland and the larger reservoirs in the winter. At this time of year, the birds are seeking open water areas, free of ice, to find fish and waterfowl, their preferred food, he said.

“The biggest problem right now in Maryland is that the eagles’ primary breeding habitat is wooded shorelines less than a mile from tidal water, and those are also the hottest real estate properties in the state,” Therres said.

“Development pressure is growing, and so are the potential conflicts between population growth and housing requirements and the habitat of bald eagles.”

Observers from the state Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army at the Aberdeen Proving Ground conducted the midwinter survey in Maryland.

The research is part of a national effort to monitor trends in the wintering of bald eagles in all states except Alaska and Hawaii.

Last year, 12,076 eagles were observed in 38 reporting states.