The American bald eagle, once nearly extinct, is making a comeback, so much so that the revered bird was taken off the federal government's list of protected species Thursday.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne made the announcement at a ceremony near the Jefferson Memorial, a day before the expiration of a court-directed deadline for his department to decide the eagle's status.

Conservationists have hailed the successful recovery of the eagle as clear evidence that the Endangered Species Act , which has been under attack in recent years from business groups and some members of Congress, can work.

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Government biologists have documented nearly 10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles, including at least one pair in each of the 48 contiguous states.

This compares to only 417 such pairs in 1963, when the bird was on the verge of disappearing everywhere in the country except for Alaska.

While no longer declared endangered, the bald eagle will continue to be protected by a 1940 federal law that will make it illegal to kill the bird, as well as state statutes.

Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service also is preparing guidelines for protecting the bird's nesting habitat under the 1940 law and developing a permitting process that landowners will have to use if eagles are found on property they want to disturb.

"This is truly one of America's great wildlife success stories" said John Kostyaxk, director of the National Wildlife Federation's endangered species program.

He said it shows the Endangered Species Act is needed and can work to save plants and animals on the verge of disappearing.

Despite its status as the country's national symbol, the bald eagle over the years has been abused and maligned as a scavenger and dangerous predator. Tens of thousands of the birds were killed by hunters over the years.

But the bird's decline accelerated when it became the victim of DDT , the insecticide widely used after World War II on plants to control mosquitoes. The DDT found its way into lakes and streams and into fish, the eagle's favorite food.

The bird was listed as endangered in 1967, six years before the Endangered Species Act became law. When DDT was banned in 1972, the eagle's recovery began.