But with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now angling to remove that special protection, scientists and Arizona conservationists are crying foul. Eagle advocates argue that Southwestern bald eagles are a distinct species. And with only 43 breeding pairs in Arizona, they say these soaring hunters are nowhere near recovery.
"No scientist in the world will tell you that a species with only 43 breeding pairs is not endangered," says Kieran Suckling, policy director at Tucson's Center for Biological Diversity. "Most endangered species we know of have 1,000 or more pairs."
Among scientists, it's commonly believed that a minimum of 500 breeding pairs is necessary for species survival.
Suckling's position is buttressed by the Raptor Research Foundation. This consortium of top bird biologists was tapped by the Fish and Wildlife Service to peer-review its delisting plans.
In an 11-page letter, the foundation raised a big red flag over Arizona. That inconvenient missive was then sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service, where it was promptly shelved.
Instead, the federal agency is plowing ahead with plans to delist Arizona's bald eagles, along with those across the country. In turn, these efforts enjoy support from the Arizona Game and Fish Department. A delisting would give the state full control over the eagle's fate. Unfortunately, AGF so far lacks management goals or a concrete funding stream for safeguarding the bird. Nor does the department offer designated habitat protections--even though Arizona's prime eagle riparian areas face direct impact from urban development.
That combination opens the door to disaster, according to Raptor Research Foundation scientists. "We predict that, without mandatory habitat protection measures, removing the bald eagle from protection under the ESA will result in a loss of habitat in these and other areas," the scientists write. "Depending on how extensive these losses are, bald eagle populations could decrease soon after delisting."
Others take a different view, among them Jamey Driscoll, the AGF's raptor management coordinator. Even if the eagle is delisted, he optimistically predicts little change in state management. "When I started with the department in '92, we only had 28 breeding areas," he says. "And now have 50. If we continue the management plan in place right now--which is what (a new draft) plan lays out--there should be no concern with delisting."
That plan would require cooperation from 21 tribes, business concerns and government agencies. Driscoll predicts all will reach agreement by January.
But such optimism recently got a little dicier. In 2004, Suckling's group and the Maricopa Audubon Society petitioned to have the Southwestern desert nesting bald eagle considered as a distinct population. In August, the Fish and Wildlife rejected that petition, saying it lacked scientific evidence--despite contrary opinions from the raptor scientists.
On Nov. 2, the conservation groups filed a notice of intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service over that rejection.
Suckling says the federal petition process simply "asks if there's enough information to cause a reasonable person to say, 'We'd better look more closely at this.' That's a pretty low standard."
But perhaps not low enough, when politics and huge economic pressures stand in the way.
For decades, Arizona's eagle has lagged behind its better-off brethren across the nation. Nationally, lack of protection and extensive use of the pesticide DDT had nearly wiped out the bald eagle by the 1970s, when a pesticide ban was put in place, and the eagle was given endangered species protection.
Since that 1978 listing, populations have rebounded, making the bird one of the ESA's great success stories. So successful was this recovery that in 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service down-listed bald eagles from endangered to threatened.
But success was not universal. Arizona's eagles in particular have not rebounded at the pace found in other regions. One reason is the relative rarity of riparian, or riverside, habitats in Arizona, and the increasing stress upon those habitats from urban growth. Another is the belief among researchers that the Arizona population is biologically distinct, smaller and genetically segregated from other bald eagles.
In its letter, the Raptor Research Foundation noted that in the Southwest, "productivity is lower than in any other part of the eagle's range." They report that the Southwest eagle's most productive areas are near the Verde and Salt rivers, "and human population in this area is projected to double to 6 million within the next 30 years.
"Many of the important habitats now used by bald eagles are sought for human development and other consumptive uses," says the dispatch.
Equally damning was a letter submitted by Robert Magill, former head of AGF's eagle conservation program. Critical of the delisting, Magill cited unclear management plans, writing that "... the confusion between down-listing goals, which were met, and delisting goals, which were never identified in recovery plans, is a fatal flaw in the proposal."
Fatal enough, he wrote, that the bald eagle "should continue to be protected as a threatened species in the Southwest until realistic delisting goals can be established and obtained."
Unfortunately, there are also eerie parallels between the eagle and an earlier delisting candidate, Southern Arizona's ferruginous pygmy owl. In its zeal to remove the owl from endangered rosters, Fish and Wildlife simply ignored recommendations from its own biologists for continued ESA protection. The same seems in play with the eagle, as the agency moves ahead with delisting--against the opinions of the nation's top raptor experts.
Cynics will note that owl and eagle habitat both lay directly in the path of prized urban development areas.
Despite the debate, exact reasons behind the Fish and Wildlife Service stance remains unclear. Elizabeth Slown, an agency spokeswoman in Albuquerque, N.M., didn't return a call seeking comment for this story.
Meanwhile, Suckling says the pending lawsuit could have huge effects. "If we go to court, we could ask for an injunction on the entire national (bald eagle) delisting, even though the eagle nationwide is in recovery."
By refusing to treat Arizona's eagle separately, he says Fish and Wildlife "is sticking in a poison pill that could jeopardize the whole national delisting."