Groups Sue to Protect Eagles
by Kate Nolan, The Arizona Republic
January 6, 2007
Arizona conservationists on Friday made good on a threat issued in November to sue the government over endangered-species protection for Arizona’s Bald Eagles.
The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society filed a lawsuit naming the heads of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its parent agency, the U.S. Interior Department.
The suit claims that they failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act in managing the recovery of Arizona’s Bald Eagles and have suppressed scientific evidence that the desert nesting Bald Eagle, which primarily dwells in Arizona, remains endangered.
Bald Eagles throughout the U.S. are expected to be removed from endangered-species protection by Feb. 16, a deadline imposed by a federal judge in Minnesota.
The conservationists support delisting the eagle nationally but doubt that eagles in Arizona will survive without protection by the Endangered Species Act, the only federal law that specifically safeguards their habitat.
The national bird’s population in the contiguous states has grown from about 400 breeding pairs in 1978, when it was initially listed, to an estimated 10,000. There are 39 active breeding pairs in Arizona, a twofold increase since the 1980s.
“The population has not yet grown to recovery. Maybe in another 15 years under endangered-species protection it may, but 39 breeding pairs doesn’t equal recovery. A conclusion like that is absurd,” said Robin Silver, who heads the Center for Biological Diversity’s board.
A spokeswoman for the agencies would not comment on ongoing litigation.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department manages the desert eagle population under the Endangered Species Act and supports delisting the bird in Arizona.
Eric Gardner, chief of non-game species at the department, said the state eagle program is working.
“Although the federal government has played a role, the state’s management program has made the progress,” Gardner said.
A state plan to monitor the eagles after delisting would maintain the current management team of seven Indian nations, seven government agencies and a handful of others, including Arizona Public Service Co. and Salt River Project. But most have not yet signed off on the plan.
A former manager at the Game and Fish Department is skeptical that the government has adequately examined the eagles’ viability.
Robert Magill suggests that the federal government do a serious analysis of Arizona’s eagles before changing the bird’s status.
Magill, who left the department in 2004, said goals have never been set for delisting Arizona eagles. The bird was dropped from “endangered” to “threatened” in 1995.
“The confusion between downlisting goals, which were met, and delisting goals, which were never identified, is a fatal flaw in the delisting proposal. Until you’ve established goals and prove they’ve been met, you can’t delist,” said Magill, a consultant in Colorado.
The low number of Arizona birds also concerns biologists.
“Forty pairs is very low,” said Peter Stacey, an ornithologist and conservation biology professor at the University of New Mexico.
“For example, these droughts we’ve had lately really affect the viability of species. To withstand something like that, you want 200 to 300 pairs.”
The lawsuit charges that a 2004 petition filed by the conservation groups asking U.S. Fish and Wildlife to evaluate desert eagles as a “distinct population segment” was improperly addressed. The designation would entitle Arizona eagles to retain endangered-species protection even if the national population is delisted.
Fish and Wildlife did not meet the 90-day legal deadline for a response but complied more than a year later as part of a legal settlement after a lawsuit by the conservation groups. In November, the groups sent a letter to the Interior Department, Fish and Wildlife and others announcing their intent to sue.
The new lawsuit charges that Fish and Wildlife’s ultimately negative response was based on an unscientific analysis that excluded documents that paint a bleaker picture for the survival of the species in Arizona.
The lawsuit asks the court to set aside Fish and Wildlife’s response to their petition, compel the agency to conduct a full status review of desert bald eagles, and preserve protection for the Arizona eagles until the status review is completed.