Lowered by rope, Kenneth Jacobson touches down next to the baby eagle.
At 5-1/2 weeks, the eaglet looks to be at that awkward stage. It’s covered in dark fuzz and feathers, even over its head and tail. It’s got big feet, and a big gaping beak.
Should the bird make it to adulthood, however, it will be fitted with the plumage familiar to every schoolchild in America. A national symbol second only to the flag: brilliant white feathers lighting up the head and tail; the threatening beak and talons; a stare that means business.
And the baby eagle will soar like the two bald eagles now flying overhead. Those are the mother and father. They are making noises — more like loud drawn-out chirps than eagle cries. They appear distressed by the intruder.
Jacobson has settled into a platform of sticks and debris halfway up a 200-foot cliff. It overlooks the north end of Lake Pleasant. He is a bald-eagle biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Working carefully, he places the eaglet in a bag to be lifted topside, where other biologists will take measurements and blood. The baby eagle will get lots of attention. It’s a rare bird in Arizona.
Fewer than 50 nesting pairs
There are fewer than 50 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the entire state.
Across the rest of the lower 48, it’s a different story. Not including Alaska, breeding pairs now number about 8,000 nationwide. That’s a far cry from the 417 thought to exist in the early 1960s.
The pesticide, DDT, was a major contributor to the eagles’ decline. It has since been banned, a move that helped to spur the eagles’ recovery.
Then there is the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. As a protected species, the bald eagle thrived. So much so that the federal government has proposed removing the bald eagle’s special status as threatened.
In wildlife parlance, this is known as delisting.
The Center for Biological Diversity, however, argues that Arizona’s bald eagles should remain protected. One of the center’s most outspoken members is Robin Silver, a Phoenix-area emergency-room physician and the center’s board chairman.
Silver acknowledges that, nationwide, bald eagles have made a remarkable comeback. But, he says, bald eagles in Arizona cannot lumped together with them. It’s a different bird, he says.
“It’s called the desert nesting population,” Silver says. “It’s the compelling factor in this. If you have a population that is both isolated and unique, you can’t remove protection.”
Eagles live on fish and water fowl. In Arizona, bald eagles establish nests along rivers that flow down through the desert, as well as nearby manmade reservoirs. The Arizona bald eagle is especially adapted to the desert’s dry and arid conditions, Silver says.
Only rarely have Arizona bald eagles bred with eagles in other populations, he adds. By rare, he means one or two documented cases.
Silver then sees Arizona’s bald eagle as a small and struggling population. And the main thing standing between it and extinction is the Endangered Species Act.
Delisting decision comes June 29
The federal government, however, is not expected to make an exception for Arizona’s bald eagle when it comes to delisting. As it stands now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide June 29 on delisting the bald eagle.
The differences on how to count the Arizona population have led to a lawsuit.
In 2004, the center petitioned the Interior Department, which oversees Fish and Wildlife, to consider Arizona’s bald eagle as a separate population — one that should not be delisted. The agency refused, so the center filed a federal suit against it in January.
The Maricopa Audubon Society joined the center as a plaintiff.
The complaint said the bald eagle population in Arizona “faces a serious uphill battle against extinction. Numerous threats include: a significant decline in the fishery upon which the eagle depends; toxic substances such as mercury; global warming; eggshell thinning; and severe habitat loss.”
In a March 13 answer, the Interior Department rejected the notion that the Southwest bald eagle has failed to recover and that it should be considered separately.
The case is before U.S. District Court Judge Mary Murguia in Phoenix.
In a phone interview, Silver has few kind words for the Bush Administration’s environmental track record, as carried out by the Interior Department.
“This is the worst environmental administration in modern-day United States,” Silver says.
But Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for U.S Game and Fish in Phoenix, says the bid to remove the bald eagle’s protected status predates President Bush. It goes back to 1999.
“The proposal to delist the bald eagle was made during the Clinton administration,” Humphrey says.
He doesn’t dismiss all the center’s claims outright, however.
The bald eagle in Arizona, Humphrey says, “does appear to be a distinct population. Its behaviors are unique to this area.”
On the other hand, Humphrey adds, the bald eagle’s recovery has to be viewed nationally, not just regionally, Humphrey suggests. In addition, Arizona’s bald eagle is not genetically unique, he says.
“We concluded that that’s not biologically significant to the large population of bald eagles,” he says.
Another argument for delisting, Humphrey says: The bald eagle population in Arizona has seen an increase in the past few decades.
Arizona Game and Fish officials supply the numbers.
“When the eagle was listed, we had 15 to 16 breeding pairs,” says Bob Broscheid, assistant director for the Wildlife Management Division.
That’s a third of the current estimate of 44, Broscheid adds.
Humphrey at Fish and Wildlife adds that delisting the bald eagles won’t leave them wholly without protection. They will continue to be covered by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, first enacted in 1940 and last amended in 1978.
The act imposes a $5,000 maximum fine and one year in prison for anybody who disturbs or harms a bald eagle. The Endangered Species Act also provides for up to a year in prison for each violation, along with a $50,000 fine.
For Silver, though, the difference is more than the size of the fine. The bald eagle protection act fails to protect habitat, he says.
“It’s basically about habitat protection,” he says. “No law protects habitat but the Endangered Species Act,” Silver says.
Though that protection flows from federal law, state Game and Fish is the hands-on agency when it comes to tracking the eagle’s progress in wild. Silver says the agency also has a responsibility as an advocate for the eagle’s status. But that hasn’t happened, he adds.
“The Game and Fish position is a travesty,” Silver says.
Officials at Game and Fish, however, say listing — and delisting — is a federal responsibility.
“We do support the Fish and Wildlife decision,” Broscheid says. “We do it as a matter of federal law.”
As for the eagle’s recovery, he adds: “We don’t see the bald-eagle population going extinct. We have that population expanding in the future.”
And while the bald eagle’s status might be a federal issue, looking out for its well-being is a group effort in Arizona, Broscheid says. Game and Fish leads a 22-member committee that coordinates volunteer work and funding to monitor bald-eagle nest sites.
The Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee, among other things, supports the bald-eagle nest- watching program. (Silver adds that the Maricopa Audubon Society helped to start the nest-watching program in the 1970s.)
Nest watchers camp out along rivers and lakes. Around-the-clock, they monitor nests near populated or recreational areas. They note the progress of eaglets and make the sure nests are not disturbed.
If the bald eagle loses its status under the endangered-species act, the committee won’t fold, Broscheid says. Its work will continue. As for Game and Fish, officials there have no plans to abandon the bald eagle, adds Eric Gardner, the agency’s non-game branch chief.
“The department is very, very invested in bald eagle management, and has been for a very long time,” Gardner says.
That investment, he adds, is shared by the bald eagle committee members.
Up on a plateau overlooking Lake Pleasant, Jamey Driscoll — Game and Fish bald-eagle coordinator — fields media questions about the bald-eagle program. Nearby, the baby eagle is being weighed and measured. Its talons are covered with blue booties. A leather hood covers its eyes.
The mother and father continue to circle over the lake.
Driscoll brings up the kind of help the agency receives from the bald-eagle management committee. Three of its members donate helicopter time for a monthly survey of the state’s eagle nesting areas during the breeding season — Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“We survey 104 routes throughout the state,” Driscoll says.
The survey determines which nests are occupied and which have eggs and baby eagles.
The Lake Pleasant nest, a platform of sticks and debris, had been unoccupied for nearly 10 years. Then last year a new adult female moved into the area. She hooked up with a 20-year-old male, who happened to be her grandfather. They set up house in the once-abandoned nest.
The survey, funded in part by SRP, might well have helped to pinpoint it.
If bald eagle loses its threatened-species status, however, SRP might not treat it so kindly, Silver says.
SRP oversees the storage and delivery of water from the Salt and Verde rivers, both home to eagles’ nests. Delisting the species would give the utility a freer hand to control river flows, perhaps in a way harmful to eagles, Silver says.
“The operation of the dams is … controlled by federal protection,” Silver says. “So SRP then will be able to operate the dams anyway they want, and SRP has proven that they’ll do nothing to be sensitive to an endangered animal unless there’s some litigation.”
SRP’s John Keane, though, disagrees with Silver’s assessment. Keane is SRP’s senior principal environmental scientist.
“The eagle population on the reservoirs and below our reservoirs has been increasing over the past few years,” Keane says. “We’re not going to be doing anything that we haven’t done in the past, and what we’ve done in the past doesn’t seem to be bothering the eagle,” Keane says.
He adds: “Where SRP is concerned, I think Dr. Silver’s concerns are misplaced.”
The center and SRP aren’t entirely at odds — at least when it comes to the upper Verde River. Both oppose plans by Prescott and Prescott Valley to tap the Big Chino aquifer some 40 miles north. The two cities need the water to keep up with growth. To meet demand, they purchased part of a ranch for Big Chino water rights. Construction on a pipeline to the aquifer is set to begin soon.
There’s a fly in the ointment, however. The Arizona Department of Water Resources cites a 2005 U.S. Geological Survey study that “estimates that 80 percent to 86 percent of the upper Verde’s River flow comes from the Big Chino aquifer.”
Under Arizona water law, that’s not a barrier to the pipeline’s construction.
But SRP opposes the pipeline because it wants to protect flows into downstream reservoirs.
The Center for Biological Diversity opposes it because — among other things — there are an estimated nine bald eagle nesting sites along the Verde.
If the river’s flow drops, the eagles could find it harder to get food, says Joanne Oellers, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Verde program manager.
“The eagles eat the fish and the fish would affected, and that would affect the eagles’ food supply,” says Oellers, a Dewey resident.
The endangered species act, however, gives the eagle cover, she adds.
“Having a federally protected animal puts pressure on those who would endanger its habitat,” Oellers says.
Silver says the center has already sent Prescott and Prescott Valley notice that the group intends to sue if work begins on the pipeline.
“We’re ready to go to court. We just need to have a trigger,” Silver says.
Oellers clarifies what that trigger is.
“Basically, in general, when the dirt starts to move.”
Officials who support the project, however, say steps will be taken to offset any harm to the Verde. That includes Carol Springer, chairwoman of the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors.
“We are doing a lot in this area to make sure that it doesn’t happen,” says Springer, a former state treasurer and senator.
The offsets include catching rainwater runoff and using it to recharge the aquifer. Some, like Oellers, have their doubts. For one thing, the area continues to experience a drought.
“How are they going to find more water to put the water back?” Oellers asks.
Springer points out that the county itself is not directly involved in the pipeline, and has not been threatened with a lawsuit.
For the baby eagle at the Lake Pleasant, the Verde’s rise or fall likely won’t matter much. The lake is fed by the Agua Fria.
On a bluff overlooking the lake, biologists have completed their checklist. They discuss whether the baby eagle is either a large male or a small female. (Among bald eagles, females are larger.) They are leaning toward large male.
The eaglet now must go back to the nest. After getting a spray of cool water, it’s placed back in the bag and lowered to Jacobson, who has remained in the nest.
Whatever the fate of bald eagles in general, the outlook for this particular baby bird isn’t good. It’s a simple matter of statistics. It has about a one-in-four chance of making it through its first year. Most likely it will die of starvation.
For now, the eaglet — again secure in the nest — has not been abandoned. Hanging on to the ropes, Jacobson is lifted back up the cliff. The dozen or so people who trekked up the plateau now retreat to lower ground. They turn and look back to the nest, which hugs a narrow ledge.
The parents continue to circle, and then one drops down to the nest, alongside the baby. The odds for survival just got better.
Birds of a different feather
Lowered by rope, Kenneth Jacobson touches down next to the baby eagle.