PHOENIX (CN) - A few hundred, eminently adaptable bald eagles did not become a "distinct population segment" when they took up residence in the Sonoran Desert, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge David Campbell granted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's cross-motion for summary judgment in the case filed by the Center for Biological Diversity.
The bald eagle is a "habitat generalist" that can survive almost anywhere, and the Sonoran Desert represents only a "minute fraction of the total suitable habitat for bald eagles throughout their range," Campbell wrote.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service largely removed the raptor from Endangered Species Act protections in 2007, hailing it as one of the law's greatest success stories. In the Lower 48 states, the bald eagle came back from fewer than 500 breeding pairs in 1963 to nearly 10,000 breeding pairs in 2007.
Rachel Carson's landmark 1962 book "Silent Spring" cited evidence that spraying of insecticides, including DDT, caused birds to lay thin-shelled eggs, leading to widespread deaths of chicks. The United States banned DDT for agricultural use in 1972.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society have argued since 2004 that a small population of desert-dwelling bald eagles represents a "distinct population segment," that should be listed and protected as such.
Under federal wildlife policies, a population is distinct when it is separated from the species' general population and its survival is significant to the species as a whole.
A year-round population of about 50 breeding pairs nests along central Arizona's Salt, Verde, Gila, Bill Williams and Agua Fria Rivers, and in the state's higher, forested regions around Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Nation, according to federal biologists.
Hundreds of traveling bald eagles have been observed "wintering" in Arizona's high country from October to March.
Wildlife officials refused to designate the Arizona birds a distinct population in 2006, but U.S. District Judge Mary Murguia set aside the decision two years later in Phoenix and ordered the agency to review the issue.
Murguia wrote in a 2008 ruling that she had "no confidence in the objectivity of the agency's decision-making process' due, in part, to evidence in the record that FWS officials in Washington, D.C. had given 'marching orders' to local FWS personnel that the petition was to be denied, stating that the local FWS personnel should make their analysis support this policy decision."
Another two years on, the agency found again that the desert eagle population was not significantly different from other bald eagle groups, so as to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon challenged the finding in a lawsuit, and in 2011 persuaded Judge Campbell to set aside the decision and order another review.
The agency issued a new finding in 2012, once again determining that the desert eagle was not a distinct population, and the environmental groups once again filed suit to challenge the decision.
On Tuesday, about a decade after the fight began, Campbell granted summary judgment to the federal agency on all of the plaintiffs' claims and closed the case.
"Bald eagles are highly adaptable, wide-ranging habitat generalists," Campbell wrote. "Across the range of the species, there is no 'usual' ecological setting, in terms of the elevation, temperature, prey species, nest tree species, or type of water source."
Noting that bald eagles have "been documented to nest on cliffs, on the ground, in mangroves, in caves, and in man-made structures such as cell-phone towers," Campbell agreed with the government that the desert eagle cannot be considered vital to the greater species "merely because it lives in the desert."
The Center for Biological Diversity argued, among other things, that the 2012 finding had improperly considered the desert eagle's adaptation to the typically dry conditions of its Arizona habitat, but had failed to take into account "whether desert eagles have unique characteristics that could help bald eagles as a whole in an era of global warming."
Campbell found that Fish and Wildlife's policy is "expressly flexible, permitting the agency to consider a variety of relevant factors, only some of which are identified in the policy."
All bald eagles enjoy some federal protection under The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, which made it a crime to "take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, transport, export or import" any bald eagle "alive or dead, or any part, nest, or egg thereof."
Center for Biological Diversity board member Dr. Robin Silver responded to the ruling in a statement Wednesday: "For thirty years, the US Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that our Desert Nesting Bald Eagle is unique and isolated. No other bald eagle lives in an area so hot and dry.
"Isolated and unique species are eligible for endangered species act protection as a 'Distinct Population Segment.' And 30 thirty years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized our Desert Nesting Bald Eagle as a protected Distinct Population Segment with protection under the Endangered Species Act. ...
The Arizona Game and Fish Department has already taken steps to remove protection of the Lake Pleasant nest. More peril will undoubtedly follow."
Judge Campbell was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2003.