Court rejects bid to declare Sonoran Desert bald eagle endangered

The remarkable comeback of bald eagles from the brink of extinction 50 years ago led to them being taken off the endangered species list. Environmentalists claim Sonoran Desert bald eagles still deserve special protection, but a court has disagreed. (Photo by Lee Emery/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

WASHINGTON – A federal court has rejected a bid to declare the Sonoran Desert bald eagle an endangered species, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted properly when it determined the birds were no different than other bald eagles.

The ruling Monday by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest turn in a years-long fight by environmental groups to gain protection for the desert eagles separate from other bald eagles in the U.S. Bald eagles were declared endangered in 1967 but were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 after making a remarkable recovery.

An official with the Center for Biological Diversity, which pushed for the protection, said the desert eagles should be listed as a distinct population because they “really are unique in that they are adapted to the desert.” He said the center is considering its next steps in the case.

Justin Augustine, the center’s counsel, said that without the protection the bald eagles in the Sonoran Desert are in grave danger. Despite the government’s finding, he said the desert eagles are clearly a separate population segment.

In several different reports, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that the desert eagles had “a number of unusual characteristics” such as a “preference for cliff nests,” and that they “are smaller than, and breed earlier than, other bald eagles.”

But those reports also said that bald eagles as a whole “are highly adaptable, wide-ranging habitat generalists … capable of inhabiting areas throughout North America, so long as a sufficient food source persists.”

The population under dispute is defined as “all bald eagle territories within Arizona, the Copper Basin breeding area in California near the Colorado River and the territories of interior Sonora, Mexico, that occur within the Sonoran Desert.”

The center first tried to have the desert eagles declared a distinct population in 2004, when the government began talking about “delisting” bald eagles as a whole. After study, the government rejected that request in 2006 – and again in 2010 and 2012 after the center went to court to challenge those decisions.

In one of the agency’s reports, it said the desert eagle’s unique characteristics did not require a conclusion in and of themselves that the birds were “ecologically or biologically significant for the bald eagle taxon as a whole.”

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit agreed Monday. In his opinion for the panel, Judge William A. Fletcher cited the agency’s finding that there was “no evidence of distinctive traits or genetic variations among the Sonoran Desert Area population that suggest that loss of the population would have a negative effect on the bald eagle as a whole.”

Augustine challenged that reasoning.

“They are saying that if this population didn’t exist anymore it wouldn’t matter to the whole population,” he said.

Augustine said he didn’t understand the agency’s “shoddy” and “stingy” reasoning on the birds, adding that he is “deeply disappointed in the agency.” The center is considering its next step, which could be anything from an appeal to the Supreme Court to starting at square one with another petition to Fish and Wildlife.

In the meantime, he said, other efforts to help the birds will go on.

“There are still people voluntarily taking their own efforts to sustain the population,” he said. “Things are very concerning in the long term; I want to remain optimistic. We may be required to get on the Endangered Species Act through other means somewhere down the road.”