For the third time in six years, two environmental groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get endangered species protection for the Sonoran Desert population of the bald eagle.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society said this week that they had filed a notice of intent to sue over the status of the desert eagles, which they claim is a distinct subspecies of the larger bald eagle population.
“It’s a genetically isolated population that doesn’t interbreed with other bald eagles in the U.S.,” said Maricopa Audubon Society Conservation Chairman Bob Witzeman, speaking of the Sonoran birds. ”The color, size and weight is distinct from other bald eagle populations of the nation.”
But the Fish and Wildlife Service said this week — as it has since 2006 — that the bald eagles living in the Sonoran Desert are no different from bald eagles that live in Florida, Texas or any other area the species is known to inhabit. The species was taken off the endangered species list nationally in 2007.
“Even though we acknowledge that the desert Southwest was uniquely hot and dry, if you look at some of the other areas where you find bald eagles, you’ll find them in a lot of different environments,” said Steve Spangle, the field supervisor for the service’s Arizona Ecological Services Office.
He said the constant litigation over the issue has been a drain on resources.
“The litigation takes so much energy and resources and that detracts from doing our jobs,” he said.
Spangle said protection under the Endangered Species Act should be used sparingly, and noted that bald eagles have continued to increase since the birds were removed from the endangered list.
“The endangered species list is considered by many to be similar to the intensive care unit in the hospital,” Spangle said. “A patient goes in in dire straits and when they’ve recovered, they leave. The case of the bald eagle is something to celebrate.”
But others say the service is reversing a 30-year policy of protecting eagles.
Robin Silver, cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity, pointed to a 2006 conference call in which Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they were told to find an analysis that would keep the desert eagles from qualifying as a distinct segment.
“It’d be like you go to the doctor, and you tell the doctor you don’t want cancer, and yet you’ve got this giant tumor on your face,” Silver said. “You tell your doctor to ignore the tumor and he says, OK, and gives you a clean bill of health.”
Witzeman said that bald eagles that live in the Sonoran Desert have evolved to adapt to the arid Arizona climate, making them a distinct subspecies of the bald eagle.
But while Witzeman said the population has been dwindling, the government said the numbers have increased.
In 2004, when the two groups first tried to get the desert eagles listed as endangered, the service recorded 38 areas in the Sonoran Desert with breeding pairs, 37 of which laid eggs. In 2010, the service recorded 46 breeding pairs in the area, 42 of which laid eggs that year.
While Spangle complained about the strain of repeated litigation, Witzeman said that it’s “unthinkable” to not do everything possible to protect the eagle.
“To preserve the national emblem in the state of Arizona … is something all Americans should be proud to have uniquely existing here,” Witzeman said.