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For Immediate Release, February 24, 2010                  

Contact: Dr. Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity, (602) 799-3275

Fish and Wildlife Service Removes Endangered Species Act Protection From
Arizona's Desert Nesting Bald Eagles

PHOENIX, Ariz.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is acting to remove Endangered Species Act protection from Arizona's desert nesting bald eagles. Almost two years after U.S. District Court Judge Mary Murguia’s March 5, 2008 rejection of the agency's last attempt in 2007, a similar decision by Fish and Wildlife has been released for publication in tomorrow's Federal Register. Today the agency also 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.

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. 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 Fish and Wildlife's August 2006 attempt to remove protection, and protection for the eagles was reinstated. In her 2008 order reversing the agency’s attempt to remove protection from the eagles, Judge 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.”

Today's Fish and Wildlife Service decision is similarly unsupported by science.

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 are committed to do so again. 

Background on the eagle

The desert nesting bald eagle is an icon of the Southwest's desert rivers, and only about 50 breeding pairs survive. 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.

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.

Desert eagles experience high levels of mortality of both adults and juveniles and are facing increasing threats, including Prescott's efforts 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, 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. 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 from these vulnerable birds.

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