The Southwest's desert rivers harbor a uniquely adapted population of bald eagles known as desert nesting bald eagles — geographically, behaviorally, and even biologically different from other American bald eagles. No other bald eagle population nests under such conditions of high heat and low humidity or suffers such high mortality. But “nesting” may be a misnomer these days: primarily due to habitat loss, only a few dozen breeding pairs are known to remain on Earth.


For three decades, desert nesters were closely managed as the distinct population they are, bringing the population back from three reproducing nests in 1970 — truly the brink of extinction — to 43 breeding pairs by 2006. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was preparing to delist the bald eagle nationally. To make sure desert nesters weren't a casualty of that delisting, the Center and allies submitted a petition, in 2004, to separate them from their thriving counterparts in other states and to thereby protect them as a “distinct population segment” under the Endangered Species Act.

But in a stunning reversal of its own policy, the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006 denied the petition — meaning the desert nesters would likely have been doomed had we and our allies not stepped in with a new lawsuit. In 2008 a federal judge ruled in our favor in that case, deciding that the 2007 bald eagle delisting did not support the Service's denial of our 2004 petition — in fact, the court declared, the agency's 2006 decision was a violation of the Endangered Species Act. Devastatingly, in 2010 the Service yet again denied protection to the eagle — a move proved by federal documents to be the result of politics tainting science. Immediately after a court upheld that decision, we sued to make sure this unique bird doesn't get pushed out of its Southwest habitat altogether — and won the eagle yet another chance at safeguards. Since the eagle still didn't receive protections, we sued yet again in 2012. In 2015 we won a lawsuit against grazing in the Fossil Creek watershed of central Arizona, key habitat for this beautiful bird. We won't give up defending the desert nesting bald eagle.

Photo by Tom Gatz, USFWS