WASHINGTON - Bald eagles in the Sonoran Desert are officially threatened no more: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed them from the list of endangered and threatened species Friday.
The long-expected move – it essentially took effect last year with a federal court ruling – comes a day after the Arizona Game and Fish Department reported record numbers of bald eagle eggs laid, breeding areas occupied and eaglets taking flight in the state this year.
“The birds are doing great in Arizona,” said Lynda Lambert, a Game and Fish Department spokeswoman.
The birds are also doing great in the rest of the country, which led the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove bald eagles from the list of endangered and threatened species throughout the lower 48 states in 2007.
But wildlife advocates in Arizona went to court to block “delisting” of the desert nesting eagles, claiming they merit unique protection.
A federal district court in Arizona agreed to halt the delisting pending further investigation, keeping the Sonoran birds on the protected list in the meantime.
The court dissolved that injunction last September. Its ruling hinged on a review by the Fish and Wildlife Service that determined the “bald eagles nesting in the Sonoran Desert area of central Arizona” do not qualify as a “distinct population” and should be delisted with the rest of the nation’s bald eagles.
The delisting became official when it was published Friday in the Federal Register.
Wildlife advocates are still concerned that losing the threatened status will hurt funding to help the Sonoran Desert’s bald eagles.
“The only reason they’ve done well is with intense human efforts,” said Robin Silver, a co-founder of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. The center was one of two groups that sued to block the delisting.
“But the funding of those human efforts are under siege because the agencies can hold out this new Federal Register publication and say, ‘Well they’re not endangered, why do we need to spend our money?’” Silver said.
Officials from the Arizona Game and Fish Department disagreed.
“We’re going to manage the species regardless, whether they’re protected (by) the endangered species list or not,” Lambert said. “Not much changes from our end.”
She said the Game and Fish Department is confident that financial and other support will continue. Members of the Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee – a collaboration between 25 different agencies, Indian tribes and organizations – “have all remained committed,” Lambert said.
The committee’s Arizona Bald Eagle Nest Watch Program has helped rebuild the bald eagle nesting population in Arizona since its formation in 1978. At that time, there were 11 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the state.
This year, 55 breeding areas were occupied, 79 eggs were laid and 56 nestlings took flight – all records for bald eagles in Arizona, the state said Thursday.
But for the first time since 1978, they will not be on the federal list of endangered and threatened species.
The birds still receive some protection under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, as well as the state’s Conservation Assessment and Strategy for the Bald Eagle in Arizona, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Max Levy is a reporter for Cronkite News Service