PHOENIX (CN) - Environmentalists are fighting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to remove protections for Sonoran desert bald eagles. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society say the Sonoran eagles are isolated "reproductively, biologically, behaviorally and geographically from all other bald eagles," with only about 52 breeding pairs in existence.
The groups want Endangered Species Act protections reinstated for the desert raptors. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lifted the protections in February.
Fish and Wildlife declared on Aug. 30, 2006 that desert eagles were not "significant" and did not qualify as endangered, despite "well-documented scientific information demonstrating the reproductive isolation and unique characteristics of the desert eagle," according to the federal complaint.
On March 6, 2008, a federal judge found the Fish and Wildlife Service's finding "arbitrary and capricious" and enjoined the delisting until the agency made a "lawful determination" on the desert eagle's status.
Fish and Wildlife Service a 12-month finding on Feb. 25, "reaching the same conclusion ... that desert eagles are not 'significant' to the overall bald eagle population and thus do not qualify ... for protection under the ESA," the complaint states.
On Sept. 30, the Federal Court accepted the finding.
But the environmentalists say that the Sonoran desert population of desert eagles "has failed to achieve the recovery success that other bald eagle populations have achieved." The eagles, known as the "Treasure of the Southwest," are isolated "reproductively, biologically, behaviorally and geographically from all other bald eagles," with only about 52 breeding pairs in existence.
The productivity of the breeding pairs has declined, and data from the Arizona Game and Fish Department show that the eagles "will likely go extinct in approximately 75 years," the groups say.
According to the environmentalists, when bald eagle populations in Alaska and Canada were considered stable, bald eagle populations in the contiguous 48 states were on the verge of extinction. The eagles in Lower 48 were allowed to receive Endangered Species Act protections "despite the fact that the species as a whole (due to the Canadian and Alaskan populations) was not threatened with extinction. In other words, Congress recognized that it was not enough to have bald eagles in Alaska; the populations in the contiguous 48 states mattered as well," the complaint states.
The biggest threats to the eagle are habitat destruction from cattle grazing, mining and climate change, and population growth around the eagle's habitat in Maricopa County, the environmentalists say. The Southwest has lost 90 percent of its "historical riparian communities, and the remaining riparian areas are declining."
The environmentalists say the Fish and Wildlife Service "ignored or discounted information, including findings from its own regional biologists, that desert eagles persist in an ecological setting that is unique for the taxon; that loss of the desert eagle population would result in a significant gap in the range of the species; that desert eagles differ markedly from other populations of the species in their genetic characteristics; and that desert eagles are significant due to their morphological and behavioral characteristics as well as their reproductive isolation."
They claim that the agency ignored that the eagles "use whatever high nests are available near riparian areas they inhabit in the Sonoran desert area; these sites often happen to be cliffs."
Without the listing, the eagles are still protected under state and federal law, but their nesting areas lose the extra safeguards.
The groups want Fish and Wildlife's finding that the eagles are not "significant" set aside, and want the agency enjoined from removing Endangered Species Protection for the eagles. They are represented by Howard Shanker of Tempe.
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