Flurry Of Eagles

Arizona population increases, but protection debate persists

Photo by DJ Craig.

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As volunteers and biologists labor to safeguard Arizona’s population of bald eagles, the legal battles about their future continue.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department reports that an increasing number of bald eagles have established territories in and around Rim Country, including nesting territories on several Rim lakes along Tonto Creek and the Verde River. Biologists hope that the eagles will establish nesting territories on other high country lakes, Fossil Creek and additional stretches of Tonto Creek and the Verde River.

This year, Game and Fish posted nestwatchers at 10 or 15 breeding areas with heavy recreational traffic. Studies suggest that since 1983 the nestwatchers have saved at least one chick annually, increasing production by about 7 percent — a significant edge for a small population.

For instance, the nestwatchers found a 4-year-old eagle at Canyon Lake with a broken wing. Biologists captured the bird and took it to Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation in Scottsdale, which tended to the bird until they could release it back into the wild. Tags showed that the eagle had hatched in 2008 from a nest on the Lower Verde River.

Arizona has two populations of eagles — one migratory, one local. Large numbers of migrating bald eagles pass through the state every fall and spring. Many of those birds nest in Canada, Alaska and elsewhere during the spring and summer, where they take advantage of big rivers teaming with fish. They then migrate south during the harsh winters.

However, a small population of eagles nests in Arizona, mostly along rivers and lakes where they can build nests in cliff faces — or sometimes cottonwood trees. These eagles lay eggs in February, hatch their young in the early spring then feed them in the nest on into the summer. The young eventually leave the nest and take to wandering. However, after four or five years, the young eagles return to the general area where they were born to look for mates and a nesting territory of their own. This population of young, Arizona born eagles has steadily expanded the number of nesting pairs. Apparently, very few of the non-Arizona migratory eagles ever establish nesting territories here.

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In 2013, three additional pairs of Arizona-born eagles set up housekeeping locally, bringing the number of breeding pairs in the state to a record 68.

Nonetheless, a legal battle continues centered on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision to take the desert-nesting bald eagles off the endangered species list along with bald eagles nationally.

The Tonto Apache Tribe, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, several other tribes, the Centers for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society have all opposed that decision tenaciously, with repeated appeals.

The eagle advocates maintain that the desert-nesting eagles should retain protection since they’re a separate population with distinct adaptations whose local extinction would create a gap in the range of the bald eagles overall.

Federal court judges have upheld those complaints several times, ruling that the Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly ignored its own rules in concluding that the Arizona eagles weren’t a distinct population, didn’t fill a significant gap in the range of the eagles and weren’t in danger of extinction locally.

The Fish and Wildlife Service eventually succeeded in satisfying a federal court judge that it had followed all the correct procedures to take the Arizona eagles off the endangered species list. Both bald eagles and golden eagles remain protected from killing and harassment under federal laws besides the endangered species act. However, the endangered species act gives federal officials the ability to protect the habitat of an endangered species, as well as the animals themselves. That’s a crucial extra level of protection, say advocates, since the bald eagles rely on riparian areas — one of the most endangered types of habitat in the state.

The Centers for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon have filed a fresh complaint seeking to overturn that decision and continue to file information in support of their civil suit seeking to force the federal government to put the Arizona eagles back on the list.

The latest filings include numerous memos and reports obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Generally, those memos and e-mails demonstrate that Arizona-based federal biologists and wildlife repeatedly concluded that the desert nesting bald eagles do constitute an endangered population under the terms of the endangered species act. The biologists concluded that the somewhat smaller Arizona eagles have adapted to their difficult environment. They bear their young earlier and nest more often on cliff faces rather than big trees, when compared to eagles elsewhere. Moreover, those adaptations could prove important to the larger population in the future if a warming climate changes conditions.

However, officials in the regional and national office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly overruled the recommendations of the local federal biologists, despite the repeated court orders directing the agency to go through the procedures again.

Agency e-mails entered into the court record showed that higher level officials repeatedly directed the on-the-scene experts to submit a report that would support the apparently pre-determined decision to drop the Arizona eagles from the list.

STORY OF THE PHOTO BY DJ CRAIG

I was sitting at my computer looking out on Green Valley Lake when I noticed the eagle land in the willow tree on the south side of the lake. The eagle hadn’t used that tree as a fishing perch for two or three years, so, I hurried over to the lake and just sat and waited. I hoped the eagle would spot a fish close to the surface and go for it.

Initially I thought the adult eagle might have grown inpatient, because it took off and circled several times above the tree. But I soon realized it had its prey in sight. Its legs dropped, like the landing gear on a jet, talons extended and ready for its plunge into the lake. It missed. Quickly the great bird rose from the water, then dive-bombed again. Touchdown! Now off to the piney hill to the west to perch and enjoy its evening meal.

Setting on my Canon EOS 7D: Shutter, 1,000th of a second; F-stop F-13; ISO 800.

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