Save The Eagles? Save Ourselves?

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How long does it take to make a bald eagle?

Oh, about four billion years.

How long does it take to kill one — or a whole species for that matter?

Not long at all, a flicker of time — a moment’s inattention.

So, should we care whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service extends endangered species protection to the unique, Arizona population of bald eagles?

What, after all, is in it for us? Do we have any stake in the continued existence of our fellow inhabitants perched unsteadily on the deck of this spinning ark? Do we have any responsibility to them?

The resurgent population of bald eagles that breeds in Arizona, mostly along the Salt and Verde rivers, but also now at Woods Canyon Lake and perhaps one day along the East Verde, provides one relatively easy answer to the question. Human beings nearly wiped out the national bird decades ago, with the careless use of the pesticide DDT — which caused an unintended, fatal thinning of their eggshells.

We banned the use of DDT in this country (although we still sell it elsewhere) and the raptors recovered — pulling both the bald eagles and the peregrine falcon back from the brink. Recently, the Fish and Wildlife Service de-listed the bald eagle nationally, a rare conservationist triumph.

But environmental groups and the Tonto Apache Tribe sued to compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to leave in place the full range of protections for the desert bald eagles, who form a separate, still imperiled subpopulation.

The eagles here are smaller and breed earlier and only their offspring are making a brave attempt to colonize Arizona’s endangered riparian corridors in the past 30 years.

Court documents show that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may have ignored the law in initially ruling the Arizona birds didn’t meet the clear legal definition of an important and endangered subpopulation. A federal judge called the agency’s action “arbitrary” and “capricious” and ordered a fresh review.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make a new finding in October.

We hope this time they’ll come to the obvious conclusion and extend protections. That won’t have a huge impact — since a separate federal law protects both bald and golden eagles. However, an the extension of endangered status will give the federal government some additional power and responsibility to protect the bald eagle’s riparian habitat. That, in turn, will help protect a host of other equally endangered but less charismatic species — each the climax of its own four-billion-year journey.

We have come all this way ourselves, to this moment in our long history when we can make these choices — to dam the stream, turn the cottonwoods to bonfires and the streambeds to gravel pits.

We can ignore the law, grab our shotguns, run the world to benefit sparrows, cockroaches and rats while those other species vanish one by one.

Or we can save them, so that our children’s children’s children can turn their faces to the sky and cry out in joy as a bald eagle wheels past overhead.

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