Arizona’s population of bald eagles isn’t endangered, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That’s the conclusion that springs from the federal agency’s latest declaration, in response to repeated chastisement by assorted federal judges.
For the third time, the USFWS has concluded the Arizona eagles don’t need continued protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The court-ordered, 158-page report concludes that the roughly 50 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Arizona don’t qualify as a “distinct population segment” because if they all died off, the species nationally would still be doing just fine.
The Arizona eagles include one pair on Bear Canyon Lake and several pairs along Tonto Creek. Biologists hope that the offspring of these Rim Country eagles will spread to other nearby lakes and streams to set up new breeding territories.
The Arizona population of bald eagles has grown steadily for the past 30 years, proving they don’t need extra protection, the report concluded.
The number of nesting bald eagles in Arizona has increased steadily, often exceeding biologists’ projections and rising from 30 pairs in 1988 to more than 50 this year.
The USFWS finding also rejected the plea of the Tonto and White Mountain Apache and other tribes for continued protection because the local population of eagles has a tremendous spiritual and cultural value to the tribes.
USFWS spokesman Steve Spangle said, “the problem with the word ‘significant’ is that the eagle is very significant to the culture and religion of the tribes, but that is a different definition of significant.”
The finding means that the federal government will no longer have to consider whether its actions might adversely affect the eagles’ critical habitat, which includes hundreds of miles of streams and rivers — most of which have suffered serious decline in recent decades.
Other laws would still make it illegal to kill or harass both bald and golden eagles.
Environmental groups immediately vowed to again appeal the federal agency’s latest findings.
Environmental groups have won several court cases after federal judges ruled the federal agency charged with protecting endangered species ignored the opinions of field biologists, which generally favored continued protection. In two different cases, judges have ruled that the USFWS failed to follow its own rules and acted in an “arbitrary and capricious manner.”
However, those judges have each simply ordered the agency to complete additional studies and consultations.
Groups like the Centers for Biological Diversity maintain that the desert bald eagles qualify as a “discreet” and “significant” subpopulation, the loss of which would open up a significant gap in the range of the species overall.
Critics of the ruling note that studies show that small populations remain vulnerable to extinction, even if they seem stable. Drought, habitat change and other localized crisis can have a big impact, reducing numbers so quickly that recovery is difficult.
Biologists have concluded that the Arizona bald eagle population doesn’t usually interbreed with eagles from other areas that migrate through the region in the winter. Instead, the Arizona eagles mate for life and each pair establishes a territory to which they return year after year. They defend prime nesting territories and chase away other eagles.
Young born in Arizona set off on continent spanning migrations as youngsters, but if they survive for five years and reach breeding age, they’ll try to find a territory close to the area where they were born — even though their tough-love parents will not let them settle nearby.
As a result, biologists say the local population doesn’t mix much with other eagles and has only slowly colonized new areas.
Most of the nesting bald eagles in the state so far have nested in cottonwood snags and cliff ledges along the Salt and Verde rivers and a few tributaries. A few have established nests along lakeshores, like Bear Canyon, Alamo and Alpine lakes.