Wildlife Service Wants To Reduce Protection For Desert Bald Eagles

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Tom Brossart photo

A mated pair of bald eagles has for the past two years nested at Woods Canyon Lake.

Bald eagles that nest in the Sonoran Desert aren’t essential to the eagle population nationally and so they should lose their protection as an endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided this week.

The decision would put the roughly 48 nesting pairs of desert bald eagles on the same footing as the rest of the bald eagles nationwide, and spurred immediate threats of lawsuits from environmental groups who said that without extra protections, eagles would die out in Arizona.

The federal agency asked a U.S. district court to lift an injunction it imposed two years ago when a judge ruled the Wildlife Service had been “arbitrary and capricious” when it waved aside protests and included the desert bald eagles in its decision to take bald eagles nationwide off the endangered species list.

The Wildlife Service conceded that the desert bald eagles make up a “discrete” population that doesn’t mate with bald eagles that migrate through the area in the winter. However, the long-awaited opinion by the Wildlife Service biologists concluded that the somewhat smaller, earlier-nesting desert eagles do not have “biologically distinguishing factors important to the species as a whole ... We conclude that the persistence in the ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert Area is not important to the species as a whole,” the opinion concluded.

Environmental groups immediately promised to file motions to prevent U.S. District Court Judge Mary Murguia from granting the Wildlife Service’s request.

Center for Biological Diversity founder Robin Silver said no recognized bald eagle expert had agreed with the move to remove protections for the desert population.

“If the decision stands, it will be a death sentence for our desert nesting bald eagles. We’re anxious to get back into court to save these magnificent birds,” said Silver.

The Tonto Apache Tribe joined with the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Yavapai-Apache Nation, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Maricopa Audubon and the Center for Biological Diversity two years ago in the lawsuit that forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its original decision to drop endangered species protection for the desert eagles.

“The science and the law has not changed,” said Silver. “Sadly, neither have the politics.”

In response to that original lawsuit, critics maintained that wildlife officials at the national level had ordered the field biologists to knock the desert eagles off the list.

The judge’s opinion directing the Wildlife Service to start over made reference to a 2006 conference call where the local officials “received marching orders and were directed to find an analysis that fit with the negative 90-day finding on the DPS status of the desert bald eagle. These facts cause the Court to have no confidence in the objectivity of the agency’s decision-making process.”

However, the most recent finding by the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the desert population doesn’t meet the requirements for protection as a subpopulation, when the species isn’t endangered elsewhere.

The desert bald eagle “does not meet the criteria of a distinct population segment and is therefore not a listable entity under the Endangered Species Act,” the Wildlife Service concluded.

However, the desert eagles will continue to be protected from hunting and killing and harassment under the provisions of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, said Wildlife Service officials.

“The bald eagle has made a remarkable recovery across the nation,” concluded Benjamin Tuggle, the Southwest Regional Director for the Service.

He noted that the number of bald eagle pairs in Arizona has risen from three in 1971 to 48 in 2009 and that even with the delisting, they would retain “significant federal and state protection.”

The Wildlife Service agreed that the desert eagles comprise a “discrete population” — which means they don’t interbreed with eagles from elsewhere.

The desert eagles are “markedly separate” and “the areas immediately surrounding the Sonoran Desert area lack the appropriate bald eagle habitat parameters of water, fish and nesting areas and contain no known breeding bald eagles.”

A mated pair of bald eagles has for the past two years nested at Woods Canyon Lake and several pairs nest along Tonto Creek, with many more nesting along the Salt River.

An endangered species listing provides tools to not only protect the animal, but the critical habitat as well — like desert streams near the big cottonwoods and cliff faces the eagles need for nesting.

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