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Desert Nesting Bald Eagles May Lose Federal Protection

PHOENIX, Arizona, February 27, 2010 (ENS) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving to drop Endangered Species Act protection for Arizona’s desert nesting bald eagles. Only 48 breeding pairs survive, clinging to their hot, dry habitat in the Sonoran Desert along the Southwest’s desert rivers.

Almost two years after a federal judge’s rejection of the agency’s last attempt in 2007, a similar decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service was published in Thursday’s Federal Register. The issue has been the subject of lawsuits brought by conservation organizations since 2006, and it is headed for the courtroom again.

The agency has filed a request with the U.S. District Court to remove an injunction currently in place to protect the eagle.

“We conclude that the best information available does not indicate that persistence in the ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert Area is important to the species as a whole,” the new Fish and Wildlife decision states.

Desert nesting bald eagle flies over Saguaro Lake, Arizona, November 18, 2009. (Photo by Brian)

But no recognized bald eagle expert agrees with that assertion, as no expert agreed with the Service’s earlier 2007 decision to remove protection. “The science and the law have not changed, but sadly, neither have the politics,” says Dr. Robin Silver with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“If the decision stands, it will be a death sentence for our desert nesting bald eagles,” said Silver. “We’re anxious to get back into court to save these magnificent birds.”

On January 4, 2007, the Center and Maricopa Audubon challenged in court the Service’s August 2006 attempt to remove protection, and protection for the eagles was reinstated.

In August 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the federal list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.
But unique and significant populations and their habitat qualify for Endangered Species Act protection with a designation as a “distinct population segment” or DPS. For more than three decades, desert nesting bald eagles have been recognized as a unique population, different from bald eagles elsewhere.

In her 2008 order reversing the agency’s attempt to remove protection from the eagles, U.S. District Court Judge Mary Murguia concluded, “…it appears that FWS participants in the July 18, 2006 conference call received ‘marching orders’ and were directed to find an analysis that fit with a negative 90-day finding on the DPS status of the desert bald eagle. These facts cause the Court to have no confidence in the objectivity of the agency’s decision making process in its August 30, 2006 90-day finding.”

Thursday’s Fish and Wildlife Service decision is similarly unsupported by science, the Center claims.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community all joined the earlier lawsuit to help protect the desert nesting bald eagle. All these same tribes are committed to do so again.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision is a 12-month finding on a petition filed in 2004 by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Maricopa Audubon Society, and the Arizona Audubon Council to list the Sonoran Desert Area bald eagle as a distinct population segment.

Affected eagles are those within Arizona, the Copper Basin breeding area in California near the Colorado River, and the territories of interior Sonora, Mexico, that occur within the Sonoran Desert or adjacent communities.

The Center for Biological Diversity argues that, “The population is reproductively, geographically, biologically, and behaviorally distinct from all other bald eagle populations, since no other bald eagle population occupies habitat so hot and dry – an adaptation that’s critically important as global warming becomes increasingly problematic for species survival.”

“No other population of bald eagles will move in if this population disappears, and that will result in a significant gap in the overall bald-eagle range,” the Center says.

Desert eagles experience high levels of mortality of both adults and juveniles and are facing increasing threats, including the efforts of the small city of Prescott, Arizona to remove water from the Upper Verde River.

Independent of increasing threats to habitat, population viability studies show likelihood of this population’s extinction within the next century without increased protection.

Also, says the Center, “The desert eagle population is highly dependent on protection by heroic on-the-ground chaperones from the Nest Watch program. From 1983 to 2005, the NestWatch program has been responsible for saving 9.4 percent of all young eagles fledged in Arizona. In the areas of direct NestWatch protection, higher levels of productivity are observed. Breeding areas around the core Salt and Verde River confluence area display higher reproductive rates and less nestling mortality than breeding areas elsewhere.”

Most of the NestWatch money comes from mandatory Endangered Species Act funding, the Center points out. Three of the largest funders, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Salt River Project, have already expressed doubts about continuation of their contribution if Endangered Species Act protection is removed.

Click here to read the Federal Register notice denying the Sonoran Desert Area bald eagle status as a Distinct Population Segment.

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