The San Carlos Apache Tribe wants to join a lawsuit that seeks to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to put desert bald eagles back on the endangered species list.
The Apache Tribe recently asked a federal judge to allow them to join in the latest lawsuits centered on the Fish and Wildlife’s two-year effort to drop endangered species protection for the roughly 50 pairs of bald eagles that nest in Arizona, mostly along the Salt, Verde and Gila rivers. That includes pairs nestling along Tonto Creek near Roosevelt Lake and on one or more of the Rim lakes off Forest Road 300.
The San Carlos Apaches maintain that the desert nesting eagles remain essential to their religion, since eagle feathers play a vital role in many ceremonies, eagles serve as spiritual messengers in many contexts and traditional Apache spiritual and religious beliefs maintain that the presence of eagles is vital to the physical and spiritual health of the world.
The tribe sought permission to join forces legally with the Maricopa Audubon Society and the Centers for Biological Diversity in an effort to reverse the Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that the desert eagles aren’t a unique, significant subpopulation that needs continued listing, even though bald eagles nationally are no longer endangered.
The Fish and Wildlife Service declined comment on the latest filings, citing a policy against commenting on lawsuits.
Conservation groups have cited reports by federal and state biologists stating that the Arizona eagle population remains so small and so dependent on a handful of streams and rivers that they could easily die out, despite significant population gains in the past decade.
Several studies have concluded that small populations with less than several thousand individuals remain prone to extinction.
An estimated 10,000 bald eagle pairs now exist nationally. However, the relative handful of desert-nesting bald eagles don’t appear to breed with other, migrating bald eagles. Experts think that the bald eagles that do now nest in Arizona were nearly all born here. The desert eagles are smaller, breed earlier and are far more likely to nest on cliff faces than eagles elsewhere.
Federal officials have said that other laws bar the killing or harassment of both bald and golden eagles.
The latest filing by the San Carlos Apache Tribe claimed that the FWS has ignored the evidence offered by Apache elders and wildlife managers, who testified that the Apaches would suffer irreparable harm spiritually and otherwise if the desert eagles died out. The San Carlos Apache refer to the bald eagles as Itsa Cho and the Tonto Apache as Iichaa Cho.
“The health of the Apache people is tied directly to the health of the natural world, and the relationship of all beings in the natural world to each other,” argued the tribe’s lawyers in the most recent filing.
“The desert eagle is specifically called upon in Apache songs and prayers and the feathers of the desert eagle are used in virtually all Apache religious ceremonies. Apaches collect feathers and perform ceremonies in partnership with eagles. The eagles give their feathers to the Apaches willingly, if they are approached properly.”
The FWS ignored the pleas of the Apache experts and elders for continued protection of the desert eagles, the lawsuit said.
“The decision by the (FWS) to ignore the direct relevancy of the tribe’s knowledge about the persistence and habits of the desert eagle both corroborates and separately demonstrates that the (FWS) acted in an arbitrary, capricious and unlawful manner,” the lawsuit concludes.