Eagle Biologists’ Report Overruled By Higher-Ups

Desert bald eagle debate reveals how politics trumped science at Fish and Wildlife Service

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Tom Brossart/Roundup

Desert Bald Eagles like these two photographed on the shores of a Rim Country lake were among the species in the report.

The internal debate about whether to continue to protect the bald eagle population in Arizona offers an example of the mingling of politics and biology at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, concluded a report from the Office of the Inspector General.

The history of the argument between field biologists and regional and national administrators revealed a process that often led to expensive, losing lawsuits and harm to endangered species, concluded the recently issued report.

In the case of the desert bald eagle, which nests in the Rim Country and along streams throughout the state, a federal judge dismissed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision-making process as “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered it to start over.

The investigation by the federal watchdog agency concluded that regional administrators made the decision for political reasons ahead of time and dictated to the field biologists what their report should conclude.

Federal law requires biologists to base their decision on science, but allows the agency to take into account economic impacts in making its final decision.

The inspector general’s office found no evidence that Assistant Director Julie MacDonald directly influenced the decision. Investigators said the internal debate indicated the degree to which administrators sought to limit the application of the act as biologists struggled to craft recommendations that could make it up the administrative chain to Washington.

The controversy dates back to 2006, as the Fish and Wildlife Service moved to take the bald eagle off the endangered species list, as a result of a heartening increase in their numbers nationally. Some advocates for the bald eagle in Arizona wanted to maintain protections for the desert nesting eagles.

About 40 pairs of bald eagles nest in cottonwoods and cliff faces along a host of rivers and lakes in central Arizona, including Tonto Creek and several Rim Country lakes. Studies suggest the same eagles return year after year and that passing eagles born elsewhere almost never occupy territories here. Therefore, advocates insisted the relatively smaller, early-nesting Arizona bald eagles needed continued protection as a separate population.

The Endangered Species Act does provide for the protection of a sub-population if it meets three criteria. The population must be discrete from other groups, based on their behavior, mating patterns and range. It must occupy a significant portion of the overall range. And it must be threatened with possible extinction without protection.

Listing biologist Sarah Quamme, who was responsible for the scientific study that would determine whether the desert eagles qualified as a protectable subpopulation, wrote a memo proposing to determine whether the eagles were discrete, significant and threatened.

Regional Director Ron Lohoefener said he doubted the research would show the desert eagles qualified as “threatened” since their population was increasing.

When biologist Steve Sprangle later told Lohoefener that the report would probably conclude the desert eagles were discrete and significant but not threatened, Lohoefener warned him that it “had better not come in that way,” according to the investigation.

Earlier, the inspector general’s report had concluded that the higher-ups had “bullied and intimidated” field biologists so often that they referred to the process as “getting MacDonald.”

The pressure to not list the desert eagles became clear to the field biologists during a July 18, 2006 conference call that involved field biologists and Washington administrators, the inspector general’s report said.

Biologist Mary Richardson told investigators that in her opinion, the desert bald eagle could qualify as both discrete and significant in their range. However, the Washington administrator responded, “We’ve got the answer: we just need the analysis to support it.”

Richardson said she hit the mute button on her phone and turned to the other “shocked” field biologists at her end of the conversation and asked, “did he just say that?”

The Washington administrators ultimately revised the report of the field biologists and concluded the desert eagles needed no extended protection, once the eagles were delisted nationally.

Environmentalists sued and U.S. District Court Judge Mary Murguina in 2008 overturned the Wildlife Service’s findings and ordered a new, one-year study and comment period on whether the desert eagles need continued protection, which is still under way.

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