Center for Biological Diversity

Desert Nesting Bald Eagle

 

Bush Administration Suppressed Scientific Panel Recommendation to Keep Arizona Bald Eagle on Endangered Species List

Recommendation by Former Head of Arizona
Eagle Recovery Program Also Suppressed

Suit filed January 5, 2007 to keep Arizona eagle on endangered list,
force consideration of suppressed scientific reports

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society filed suit in January 2007 challenging the Bush Administration's suppression of scientific reports concluding that the Arizona Bald Eagle should remain on the endangered species list. The suit seeks an injunction barring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from removing the Arizona eagle from the endangered list and requiring it to incorporate the scientific studies in its management plans.

Nationally, the bald eagle has experienced an extraordinary recovery, growing from just 416 pairs in 1963 to about 11,000 pairs today. The recovery of the Arizona population, however, has been much more modest. It grew from 18 breeding pairs in 1985, when systematic surveys first began, to a high of 39 breeding pairs in 2006.

"If its population keeps growing for another 15 years, the Arizona bald eagle may reach recovery," said Robin Silver, board chair of the Center for Biological Diversity, "but it's certainly not recovered now. No scientist in the world would conclude that a population with just 39 breeding pairs is recovered. It defies logic. It doesn’t pass the laugh test."

"Arizona is the fastest-growing state in the nation," said Bob Witzeman, conservation chair of the Maricopa Audubon Society. "Urban sprawl is rapidly dewatering our fragile desert rivers. Arizona's unique eagle population needs more protection, not less."

Historically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managed the Arizona bald eagle as a population distinct from all other eagles in the U.S. It has its own recovery plan and recovery program. In 1999, however, the agency proposed to treat all eagles in the lower 48 as a single population and remove them from the endangered list. The agency convened a seven-member scientific panel to peer-review the delisting proposal. On August 11, 2006, the panel approved of the national delisting effort but recommended that the Arizona population not be delisted:

"(T)he Southwest population appears to be less viable than populations in other parts of the country and may not warrant delisting at this time…We continue to be concerned about the viability of the Southwest population of Bald Eagles based on the low number of breeding pairs, relatively low productivity, relatively high adult mortality, and threats of habitat alteration and human disturbance…(W)e do not believe that the Southwest Bald Eagle population is secure, and we question whether even current numbers can be sustained without active management and habitat protection. USFWS may wish to reconsider the possibilities of designating the Southwest recovery region as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and deferring delisting of the Southwest population until data are available that demonstrate the population is sufficiently large and self-sustaining."

The same conclusion was reached by Robert Magill, former Chairman of the multi-agency Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee. His June 17, 2006, review of the national delisting proposal stated:

"Therefore, the bald eagle should continue to be protected as a threatened species in the Southwest until realistic delisting goals can be established and obtained…the conclusion that the bald eagle in the Southwestern Recovery Region no longer needs protection from the Endangered Species Act is incorrect. The bald eagle is still threatened in the Southwestern Recovery Region, across the broader Southwest portion of its range (the area which influences the status of the Southwestern Recovery Region), and current protection are not adequate to protect the bird and its habitat."

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the Arizona bald eagle on the endangered list on October 6, 2004. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied the petition on August 30, 2006. It agreed the Arizona population was a valid population, but declared that it was neither endangered nor biologically significant.

Despite having the peer-review panel and Magill assessments in hand, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the agency did not possess "information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the measure proposed in the petition may be warranted." The decision does not discuss or admit the existence of either assessment. The agency suppressed the documents until the Center was tipped off by an angry federal scientist.

“This is brute suppression of science,” said Silver. “When the peer-review panel disagreed with the predetermined conclusion, it was thrown in the dustbin. When the head of the recovery program objected, his letter was hidden away.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a non-profit conservation organization with more than 32,000 members dedicated to the protection of imperiled species and their habitats.

Maricopa Audubon Society is an organization of volunteers dedicated to the enjoyment of birds and other wildlife with a primary focus on the protection and restoration of the habitat of the Southwest through fellowship, education, and community involvement.

Contact:
Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity, (602) 799-3275
Bob Witzeman, Maricopa Audubon Society, (602) 840-0052


BACKGROUND

Complete text of peer-review section devoted to the Arizona bald eagle
“We continue to be concerned about the viability of the Southwest population of Bald Eagles based on the low number of breeding pairs, relatively low productivity, relatively high adult mortality, and threats of habitat alteration and human disturbance.

We are not aware of any data showing a clear, long-term increase in the Southwest Bald Eagle population (Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico). The delisting proposal notes that there were 46 occupied breeding territories in Arizona and New Mexico in 2003, and that Arizona's 41 pairs produced an estimated 0.75 young/pair in 2004. This is a relatively small population for such a large geographic area, and productivity is lower than in any other part of the eagle's range. Coupled with relatively low productivity, adult mortality is relatively high: 12-16% of the breeding population per year (Arizona Game and Fish Department 1999). In most eagle populations, natural mortality of adults is usually less than 10% (McCollough 1986, Wood 1992, Bowman et al. 1995). Since 1983, the Arizona Nest Watch Program has been involved in the rescue of more than 50 nestlings and eggs. If the nest watch program is discontinued, productivity likely will fall below that needed to maintain a stable or increasing population.

Compounding conservation difficulties posed by low numbers, lower productivity, and higher adult mortality, the Southwest population is faced with a variety of threats related to rapidly increasing human populations. For example, in 1996 and 1997, almost 14,000 human activities and nearly 4,000 gunshots were recorded within 1 km of 13 different nests in Arizona (Arizona Game and Fish Department 1999). The most productive eagle breeding areas in the Southwest population are in the Salt and Verde drainages in or adjacent to Maricopa County. The human population in this area is projected to double to 6 million people within the next 30 years (Arizona Game and Fish Department 1999). Significant threats to Arizona Bald Eagles include human developments, recreational disturbance, fishing-line entanglement, and habitat modification due to grazing and flood control (Arizona Game and Fish Department 1999). In summary, we do not believe that the Southwest Bald Eagle population is secure, and we question whether even current numbers can be sustained without active management and habitat protection. USFWS may wish to reconsider the possibilities of designating the Southwest recovery region as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and deferring delisting of the Southwest population until data are available that demonstrate the population is sufficiently large and self-sustaining.”

Robert Magill
Robert Magill was the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Nongame Birds Program Manager until retiring in 2006. He was also the Chair of the multi-agency Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee. The committee is comprised state, federal, Native American and corporate agencies with management responsibility over the Southwestern Bald Eagle and its habitat. Members include: Arizona Game and Fish Department, Arizona State Parks, Army Corp of Engineers, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fort McDowell Indian Community, Maricopa County Parks and Recreation, Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, Salt River Project, San Carlos Apache Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Arizona Public Service, GeoMarine Incorporated, National Parks Service, Department of Defense and White Mountain Apache Tribe.