On a recent sunny morning Arizona Game and Fish biologist Kyle McCarty climbed to the top of a tall Ponderosa pine tree and into a bald eagle nest.
The massive mama eagle swooped overhead and watched anxiously. McCarty lowered her two nestlings down to the ground in a duffel bag to Kenneth Jacobson, the Arizona Game and Fish eagle management coordinator.
The birds are hooded. Each are about the size and color of a football. They appear calm. Jacobson gently takes one of them out of the bag to give it a health check up and secure an ID band on its leg.
The band allows Jacobson and his team to track the bird its whole life.
"We know how long they live, how far they go to breed, how many mates they have in a lifetime, all those demographic parameters we need to model the population and assess its health," Jacobson said.
Jacobson is part of an ad hoc group known as the Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee -- a group comprised of federal and state agencies, tribes and businesses that have been working along with volunteer nest watchers to protect these bald eagles since the 1970s.
Jacobson explained even though the bird will still be somewhat protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, it won't have critical habitat designated.
And that’s key, conservationists say, for a family like this one that needs water to survive. In central Arizona there are plans to build a pipeline that would drain the local aquifer near about a dozen nest sites.
Count them all and there are only about 50 active nests and 200 of these Sonoran Desert Bald Eagles. Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity said that’s not enough.
"This population cannot survive without intense, well-funded, well supported human efforts and that’s just the fact of life trying to survive in a habitat that’s been so disrupted," Silver said.
The Center has filed several lawsuits against the federal government over the last several years for deeming the Arizona bird not “significant.” In other words, if the Sonoran Desert Bald Eagle died it wouldn’t affect the greater bald eagle population nationwide.
"The word significant doesn’t mean we don’t care about it," said Steve Spangle, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"I guess I would be concerned too if I thought that the delisting of the bald eagle was gonna result in losing the bald eagle in Arizona, but I don’t believe that’s the case," Spangle said. "The Endangered Species Act is kind of like the Intensive Care Unit. And eventually you hope the patient gets out of the Intensive Care Unit."
Conservationists said they plan to appeal the federal government’s decision. This is just the latest appeal in what has been a long battle between the federal government and local conservationists to protect this tiny population of desert birds.
After finding the baby birds healthy, the biologists returned them safely to their nest. And as they drove away, mama eagle flew back to her young.