The American bald eagle (search) — the national symbol whose decline helped spur the Endangered Species Act and a ban on the pesticide DDT — will be off the threatened species list this year, a top Bush administration official said Saturday.

Craig Manson, the administration's point man on the Endangered Species Act (search), said it's time to concentrate recovery efforts on more needy species.

"It's no longer endangered, but it's still deserving of special protection," Manson said in an interview.

The birds still would be safeguarded under the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act (search) of 1940, which prohibits killing or selling the animals.

The Interior Department (search) will outline its plans this summer after taking public comment on how to protect the birds' habitat while recognizing that its population has recovered, said Manson, the department's assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks.

"The more species that we get off the list that are ready to be recovered, the more we can start focusing on those that are not quite there and ultimately move them off the list as well," he said.

Once common across North America, the bald eagle was reduced to just 417 known breeding pairs in the continental United States by 1963. Its habitat was being destroyed as the nation grew, ranchers looking to protect their sheep shot it, and widespread DDT use after World War II thinned eggshells, causing a crash in the eagles' birth rate.

By 1978, the bird was endangered in 43 states and threatened in five others. In 1995, the species was reclassified as threatened throughout the lower 48 states; it was never in danger in Alaska.

An endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range; a threatened species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

Today there are more than 7,678 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States, leading the group Environmental Defense to call on President Bush this week to "make history" by removing the bird from the federal list.

The delisting process began 41/2 years ago, but is taking far longer than the typical year. Drafting a five-year, post-recovery plan for such a huge range requires updated counts in each state, and eagle-protection rules already in place in some states have made the bureaucratic process more difficult.

The effort comes as debate rages over the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act, which environmental groups have accused the Bush administration of failing to enforce.

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a longtime foe of the 30-year-old act, has vowed to rewrite it. He contends the law prompts nuisance lawsuits by environmental groups out for financial gain.