Golden eagle populations out West struggling
This has been the worst season for nestling survival rates of the golden eagle that Steve Slater of Hawkwatch International has seen in at least 40 years.
SNOWVILLE, Utah — Dustin Maloney is in sagebrush country in remote northern Utah west of Snowville on a grueling hiking trip. He’s got one eye out for snakes and the other on the ground so he doesn’t take a perilous fall.
He and his team have gone 150 miles this day in this quest to find a very special baby — a baby golden eagle.
On another day, Steve Slater and Maloney are southwest of the Great Salt Lake at Dugway Proving Ground. soldiers are flying drones. As the drones climb high, Robbie Knight feels a flutter. He looks at the images on a touchscreen from the ground below.
All of this is playing out in front of him at one of the most important, special places in the constellation of Department of Defense assets — Dugway Proving Ground west of Tooele.
But the question remains. Will they find this baby that is so special?
There are days when there are success stories for Maloney and the others. After rappelling down a cliff in an area near Lucin in northwest Utah’s Box Elder County, he finds a baby. At a spot in Lakeside Mountains, after hiking up a steep hillside with no trail, Maloney ropes up to take a peek and finds two bodies.
When he returns to the top, he is matter-of-fact: “The birds are dead.”
This has been the worst season for nestling survival rates of the golden eagle Slater has seen in at least 40 years.
He and Maloney, who work with the nonprofit Hawkwatch International, blame a disease that is wiping out the population of jackrabbits — one of the eagles’ chief sources of prey.
“It is definitely not a super-positive picture for golden eagles at this point,” said Slater, who is the organization’s conservation science director.
With the collaboration of federal, state and other partners, Hawkwatch International employees and wildlife biologists have been fitting the nestlings with GPS backpack transmitters after they retrieve them from their cliffside homes and perform a health check.
They have done this since 2013. The recent results have been grim: About half of the nestlings fitted with the transmitters died in their first 12 months of life.
Golden eagles are typically long-lived if they can survive those early months. They don’t reach sexual maturity until 5 or 6 years old, and the oldest example of the species was 31 when it died in Utah.
The information compiled by the GPS transmitters is used to build a database so biologists and conservationists get a more thorough picture of the golden eagles’ existence in Utah, which number at a few thousand pairs.
Slater said some of the best habitat for the golden eagle — which is protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act — coexists with Defense Department military installations, especially Dugway Proving Ground in a remote western Utah.
That affords a chance at a unique partnership. For several years, Hawkwatch has worked with Dugway, Hill Air Force Base and the Utah Test and Training Range to document golden eagle nesting sites in what has become the largest study of its kind in the Western United States.
From 2013 through last years, the GPS transmitters have been placed on nestlings more than 70 times.
Because the golden eagle is a protected species, any human activity — including military training — must be minimized to the largest extent possible to protect the animal.
The military and Hawkwatch engaged in a blind study using these platforms to check for nests and monitor the birds: an on-the-ground approach, flying commercially available drones and flying military drones to gather observations.
There’s another benefit for the military. Knight, Dugway Proving Ground’s natural resources program manager, said the yearslong study has provided invaluable training.
“It is really, really difficult to monitor the eagles, but this meets all the requirements with the reality of war,” he said.
In other words: Save the eagle, train the military.
“It’s really good training because it is comparable to tasks they might be asked to do in an operational setting,” Knight said.