The state’s eagle population rose on a wet-winter updraft this year, but the legal battle about their status continues.

The number of breeding adults hit a record 104 this year. The 52 nesting pairs established three new nest sites and successfully reared 44 young — nearly double their success rate in 2000.

Researchers trying to unravel some lingering mysteries about the life cycle of the desert eagles reported a potential windfall, when they rescued a young eagle and outfitted him with a radio collar that will help track the eagles through the most poorly understood portion of their life cycle.

However, environmental groups and several Arizona tribes, including the Tonto Apache, have continued to press their lawsuit attempting to prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from taking the desert nesting bald eagles off the endangered species list. Nationally, bald eagle numbers have recovered enough to remove the species from the list, but several studies suggest the Arizona population remains vulnerable.

U.S. District Court Judge Mary Murguia on Sept. 14 heard the latest arguments on whether the desert eagles qualify for continued protection as a population that occupies a vital portion of the overall range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had sought to drop protection for the desert nesting birds.

She ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to redo its study. The federal agency redid its study and now has renewed its request to strip protection from the Arizona birds.

If dropped from the endangered species list, the critical habitat for the birds could lose legal protection. However, two other federal laws would still ban hunting or harassment of the eagles. The environmentalists and the tribes cite reports from federal biologists and computer models suggesting the population remains so small it faces a continuing threat of extinction.

The Tonto and San Carlos Apache Tribes joined in the lawsuit, arguing that the Arizona population has a deep cultural and religious significance to the tribe, which would therefore suffer great harm if the eagles disappeared from Arizona.

The judge once more took the case “under advisement,” which means she could release a ruling at any time.

This year’s figures on nesting success suggest the desert nesting eagles have continued a population boom, as they expand into new territories.

Just since 2000, the number of occupied nesting sites has increased from 38 to 52.

Overall, the desert nesting bald eagle population has increased some six-fold since the state established its Nest Watch program, which posts biologists and volunteers near about one-third of the nests to prevent people from disturbing the eagle families.

The Nest Watch program has boosted reproduction rates by about 10 percent. Advocates for the birds worry that the federal government might drop support for the program if the desert eagles lose their spot on the endangered species list..


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