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Bald eagle protection in Az reviewed

Desert-nesting birds’ backers seek special status, return to list Desert-nesting birds are distinct, should be on list, backers

Wildlife officials have until Dec. 5 to decide if Arizona’s fewer than 50 breeding pairs of desert-nesting bald eagles should continue to be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The decision rests on a scientific review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The process has already generated controversy.

Arizona wildlife officials say they’ve never been asked to weigh in on protecting Arizona’s bald eagles as a distinct population.

Southwest conservationists are questioning whether politics will prevail over science in the final decision.

And tribal leaders are waiting to see whether they will be consulted adequately.

Questions stem from the U.S. Interior Department decision in July to end Endangered Species Act protection for the estimated 11,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous 48 states.

In March, a federal judge ruled that Arizona’s bald eagles may face greater risks of extinction and, at least temporarily, put them back on the Endangered Species List.

In 2004, conservation groups petitioned the government to consider listing the Arizona birds as a “distinct population segment,” because they are smaller and lighter than other bald eagles and because their numbers are relatively few across Arizona’s arid landscape.

In 2006, the groups sued to get the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to address the petition, which led to Judge Mary Murguia’s decision.

The Arizona Game & Fish Department, the official monitor of the state’s eagles, supported the national proposal to delist bald eagles.

“We were never asked to provide an opinion on the distinct-population question. All we did was review the petition and Fish and Wildlife’s response to the petition,” said James Driscoll, a Game & Fish biologist who, until a recent promotion, was the on-the-ground manager of the state’s highly regarded eagle program. The judge, however, criticized Fish and Wildlife for consulting with state Game & Fish about the petition. According to Murguia, Game & Fish did participate in the decision, and their participation was illegal.

Driscoll and state Game & Fish Director Larry Voyles said the department’s assessment will be based on science.

“If they focus on science, we’ll all speak with one voice, because science has never been at issue. This has all been about politics and policy,” said Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity which, with Maricopa Audubon, petitioned the government to protect Arizona’s eagles.

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