More than two dozen imperiled birds, plants and animals, including the bald eagle, are recovering so well that they're close to being removed from the government's endangered list, the administration says.

Promising a new policy of giving greater priority to removing species from the list, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the growing health of some of these species shows the Endangered Species Act, despite criticism, works."Our new policy to emphasize delisting could alter the terms of debate over the landmark 1973 conservation law," Babbitt says in remarks prepared for an appearance Wednesday near a bald eagle nesting ground in a wildlife refuge in Massachusetts.

Under the Interior policy shift, 29 species from the well-known - the bald eagle and peregrine falcon - to the obscure - the Hoover's wooly-star plant and Pahrump poolfish - likely will be removed from the endangered list over the next two years, officials said.

Among others close to recovery are the timber wolf in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota; the Aleutian Canada goose; the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish in Nevada; and the Columbia white-tail deer in the Northwest.

Some will be taken totally out from under the law, while others may be shifted to the less critical "threatened" status, officials said. In some cases state management of the species may continue.

"For the first time we can get past the rhetoric and see the light at the end of the tunnel," Babbitt said.

The change marks the first time in the Endangered Species Act's 25-year history that such a large number of species would be earmarked for removal from the list. There are 1,135 species on the list with about 100 awaiting a final decision to be listed.

Over the years only 21 species have been taken totally off the list, and 14 of those were removed because they either disappeared or were found to be put on erroneously, according to Fish and Wildlife Service statistics.

"We can now prove one thing conclusively. The Endangered Species Act works. Period," Babbitt said.

Critics of the 1973 law have argued that the inability to get more species off the list demonstrates that the law is not working to protect species, while causing economic harm to people, including landowners who are restricted in the use of their property.

Some conservatives said Babbitt's latest pronouncements do little to change that view.

Many species that have recovered or are close to recovery, such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, "have recovered in spite of the ESA, not because of it," maintains Brian Seashole, a researcher on endangered species at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The bald eagle population, which had declined to 417 nesting pairs by the early 1960s, has steadily rebounded and now totals about 5,000 nesting pairs. In the mid-1970s there were fewer than 35 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons; today the number has grown to 1,500 pairs across the West. Both birds became widespread victims of pesticides, and their march toward recovery began with the ban of DDT in the United States.

Babbitt, speaking to reporters Tuesday, acknowledged that efforts to get species off the list have lagged. But he said that's in part because "we've had to dig our way out from under" a backlog of species awaiting to be listed. That backlog grew when Congress imposed a yearlong moratorium on listings that ended in April 1996.

The department's proposal to shift gears and push for removing 29 species over the next two years was welcomed as an indicator of species recovery but viewed with some caution by environmentalists.

"It is an unprecedented action. They've never before put together such a list of species," said James Waltman of the Wilderness Society. But he also said the environmental community intends to examine the list closely to make sure the species have recovered sufficiently.