Eagle Squabble Renewed

Environmental groups file new lawsuit to force endangered listing

Jack Quinn took this image of a bald eagle atop an oak at Green Valley Park.

Jack Quinn took this image of a bald eagle atop an oak at Green Valley Park.


They’re baaaaack.

And they still want the desert-nesting Arizona bald eagles protected.

Earlier this month a coalition of environmental and tribal groups renewed their repeatedly defeated efforts to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore Endangered Species Act protection to a subpopulation of bald eagles that nest on cliff faces and atop cottonwoods along the Salt and Verde rivers, plus Tonto Creek and a scattering of lakes.

Judges have twice in the past blasted the Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to strip away protection from the Arizona eagles. USFWS has argued that the population of bald eagles has recovered nationally and the 60 nesting pairs of eagles in Arizona don’t qualify under the law as a “unique” subpopulation entitled to special protection.

However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has doggedly redone the studies to fix the procedural problems cited by the judges and then come to the same conclusion: The Arizona eagles don’t occupy a significant portion of the range of the bald eagles and so even if they die off locally, it won’t endanger the overall population or restrict their range.

However, the equally dogged pro-eagle groups led by the Centers for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society this month asked federal judge David Campbell to order the USFWS to put the Arizona eagles back on the list.

The lawsuit filed by attorney Justin Augustine for the Centers for Biological Diversity asserted that the federal agency had “ignored or discounted information” from its own biologists.

USFWS biologists have consistently recommended continued protection, saying that the desert bald eagles were unique because they’re smaller, choose different nest sites, breed earlier and have other adaptations that set them apart from bald eagles elsewhere.

The number of nesting pairs of bald eagles has been expanding steadily, but generally only eagles born here set up nesting territories.

Other bald eagles migrate through the area, but almost never stop here to raise their young.

Other studies have shown that such small breeding populations remain vulnerable to extinction as a result of things like drought and fires.

“A population viability estimate based on data from the Arizona Game and Fish Department suggests that desert eagles will likely become extinct in approximately 75 years,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit argues that if the desert nesting bald eagles did become extinct, eagles from other regions probably wouldn’t fill in the resulting gap in the breeding range of the eagles nationally.

That’s why the Tonto Apache Tribe and other Native American groups joined in to support previous lawsuits making the same point. The bald eagles and golden eagles remain sacred to almost every Arizona tribe and for many play a direct role in relaying messages and prayers from the earth to the heavens.

The eagles remain so important in many ceremonies that some tribes have special exemptions to capture eagles and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service often provides tribes with eagle feathers from birds killed by poachers or in mishaps.

Advocates for the eagles have persisted so stubbornly because the Endangered Species Act provides unique protections for the critical habitat of endangered species.

Even without the Endangered Species Act, several federal laws strictly protect both bald and golden eagles from harassment or injury.

However, only the Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to consider how any action it undertakes or approves might affect habitat on which a listed species depends.


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