Lawsuits Blast Plan To Reduce Eagle Protection

Apaches, environmentalists insist politics again overruled science at Fish and Wildlife Service

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife has once again substituted politics for science by overruling the views of biologists in trying to remove desert bald eagles from the endangered species list, according to a lawsuit filed by environmentalists and several Apache tribes.

“Political hacks in Washington, D.C. are trying once again to throw our eagles into the garbage for the benefit of their developer patrons,” said Robin Silver, founder of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“We will not allow this to happen without an historic fight. We look forward to confronting these bullies in the courtroom and beyond.”

Christine Tincher, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said “I can’t speak on the lawsuit.”

She said field biologists had made contrasting recommendations.

“We did take a look at different things. There certainly were things that were going on in the filed. But nationally, we were looking at everything — and that’s where they came up. They considered everything. We already have laws that are protecting the bald eagle: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.”

Lawsuits filed by several tribes and environmental groups cited a Aug. 24, 2009 memo from Assistant FWS Service Director Benjamin Tuggle summarizing the view of field biologists that the desert eagles had unique adaptations, including the ability to cope with high temperatures, a unique breeding cycle, a nesting preference for cliff faces and cottonwoods and a resilience that made them able to withstand disaster that might befall eagles elsewhere. The biologists concluded the population was both “discrete and significant.”

However, officials in the Washington, D.C. office overruled that recommendation, concluding that they were “unable to find any error or omission in the previous analysis.”

Assistant Director Gary Frazer responded by directing the regional officials to rewrite their recommendation. Frazer wrote his staff “will work with you on development of the revised version of the finding. Obviously, the finding should not simply cite my conclusion.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s effort to take the desert eagles off the Endangered Species List along with bald eagles nationally has been stalled in court for nearly two years.

However, the latest lawsuits assert that the Fish and Wildlife Service overruled the views of the field biologists, who held that the desert eagles had distinct adaptations to a relatively harsh environment and filled a vital gap in the population nationwide.

“President Obama promised that his administration’s decisions would be based on science. Department of Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service administrators have obviously not gotten the message,” concluded Maricopa Audubon President Herb Fibel.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe also filed a motion protesting the Wildlife Service’s findings saying that the bald eagle, which they call Itsa Cho “is a very special and distinct subspecies of the bald eagle, whose life is inextricably intertwined with the continued existence of all human beings who live here, including Apaches.”

The loss of the listing will “multiply exponentially” loss of desert eagles from “rampant commercial and residential development, mining, water depletion and contamination.”

The Apache lawsuit concluded “the loss of the desert nesting bald eagle will cause irreparable damage to the deep physical and spiritual connection that Apaches have to Itsa Cho and its habitat.”

The lawsuit noted that tribal elders from the White Mountain, San Carlos and Tonto Apache tribes met with Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to share an “unprecedented amount of traditional knowledge documenting the significance, persistence and adaptation” of the desert eagles. The elders also revealed deep cultural and religious connections, including their oldest Creation songs and stories.

Moreover, the elders also shared with the biologists maps showing places with eagle-related place names, often connected to places where eagles have long nested. The Apache have a rich tradition of connecting stories about moral behavior with specific place names, which they teach their children to provide moral and spiritual guidance. Traditional Apache belief holds that such places teach wisdom and spiritual growth, which is intimately connected to the stories associated with those places.

“The FWS has, in fact, not issued a lawful decision with regard to the desert eagle: it has disregarded the highly relevant traditional ecological knowledge provided and has once again made nothing short of a raw political decision,” concluded the lawsuit.

Back in 2008, a federal court judge overturned the Fish and Wildlife Service’s first attempt as “arbitrary and capricious,” in part because national officials overruled federal biologists without going through the normal, full process. The judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to start over and follow its own rules.

Several months ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service completed the ordered consultations and reaffirmed its previous opinion that desert bald eagles don’t qualify as a “listable entity” now that the national population of bald eagles is no longer in danger of extinction.

Environmentalists and Indian tribes, including the Tonto Apache who joined in the original lawsuit, fear that dropping the eagle from the endangered species list will make it harder to protect critical habitat along streams and lakes, since the remaining laws protect the birds, but not their habitat. Eagle advocates also fear the delisting will make it harder to get federal funding to protect the desert eagles.

Some 59 pairs of desert bald eagles nested near riparian areas in the state in 2009, up from three pairs in 1971. The desert eagle population totals about 204. The population has been expanding steadily for the past decade, thanks in part to the efforts of a mostly federal-funded nest-watch program. A pair of bald eagles recently set up a nest at Woods Canyon Lake, which biologists hope will provide the birds with a talon-hold on the Rim lakes. Other pairs nest along Tonto Creek.

Without the protection of the nest-watch program, the desert eagles face a 14 to 82 percent chance of extinction in the next 50 years, according to a recent analysis by Arizona Game and Fish Department biologists working to protect the eagles locally.

The federal government currently provides about $230,000 annually for the nest-watch program, which eagle advocates fear may eventually go away if the desert eagles lose their listing. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation provides another $120,000 and the Salt River Project about $50,000.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department has generally supported the Fish and Wildlife Service’s findings and has said it would continue the nest-watch program even if the desert eagles lose their status.

Nationally, the more than 7,000 nesting pairs has risen from some 417 in 1963, when DDT accumulations in their food caused a fatal eggshell thinning that nearly extinguished the national bird.

In the most recent turn in a complicated, high-stakes case, Fish and Wildlife Service administrators in Washington, D.C. concluded that the desert eagles are a “discrete” population because they don’t interbreed with eagles from elsewhere and said the desert nesting eagles remain separated from any other breeding population.

The Wildlife Service asked the judge to let it drop the desert eagles from the list because they “do not appear to express any adaptations that are not found in bald eagles elsewhere and were not found to have any biologically distinguishing features important to the species as a whole.”

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