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Bald-eagle review gets more time

Feds looking into endangered species protection

FLAGSTAFF – A federal judge on Friday extended the deadline by nearly a year for a review of whether Arizona’s desert-nesting bald eagles should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, keeping in place temporary protections.

The order signed by U.S. District Judge Mary Murguia gives the U.S. Fish & Wildlife until Oct. 12, 2009, to issue a scientific finding on whether designating the eagles as a distinct population is warranted. The original deadline was Dec. 5.

“We’ve been moving along toward that,” said Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman for Fish & Wildlife. “It will be easier to make the deadline now.”

Conservationists and American Indian groups had sought the extension, arguing they needed more time to show the eagle’s historical range might be more extensive than Fish & Wildlife has acknowledged.

The eagles nest along the Salt and Verde rivers in central and northern Arizona, and historically have settled in New Mexico and Texas. Among threats to their habitat are dams, cattle grazing on public lands, off-road vehicle corridors and the loss of running streams, conservationists said.

Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said 90 percent of the riparian areas the eagles had depended on have been lost.

“No bald eagle experts disagree that this population is vulnerable, faces increasing risks, is distinct from bald eagles elsewhere and will not survive without Endangered Species Act protection,” he said.

All bald eagles were listed as a threatened species in 1973. The U.S. Interior Department ended protection last year for the estimated 11,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous 48 states.

Conservation groups had been arguing that the desert-nesting bald eagle is a distinct subspecies and deserves continued protection.

Murguia later ruled that Arizona’s bald eagles may face greater risks of extinction and temporarily placed them under the Endangered Species Act. She ordered the federal agency to re-evaluate the decision.

In 2004, conservation groups had petitioned the government to consider listing the Arizona birds as a distinct population segment, because they are smaller and lighter than other bald eagles. Arizona has fewer than 60 breeding pairs of desert-nesting bald eagles.

The groups sued in 2006 to get the federal agency to address the petition, which led to Murguia’s decision.

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