Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Such an unnecessary loss

Press accounts tell us this week that PacifiCorp, which does business locally as Rocky Mountain Power, has agreed to cough up $10 million for the killing of golden eagles in Wyoming through electrocution. Although the federal court case against the company was for 34 violations of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, according to the Associated Press, Rocky Mountain Power admitted that at least 232 golden eagles were killed in six western Wyoming counties in less than a two-year period. That is absolutely stunning. Think about it – 232 golden eagles, dead.

Under the federal lawsuit settlement agreement, according to press accounts, the company will pay $510,000 in fines, $900,000 in restitution, and spend $9.1 million to repair/replace/retrofit its equipment to protect raptors from electrocution in Wyoming. Wyoming Public Radio reported that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went after PacifiCorp because the company claimed it was taking action to protect raptors, but it really wasn’t. Now that will change, since the company is on probation for five years as it works to correct the dangerous situation for raptors in the state long known to host the highest wintering concentration of golden eagles in the nation. Research in the mid-1970s indicated that more than 26,000 goldens wintered in Wyoming.

One PacifiCorp spokesman says that wintering goldens began concentrating in an area outside of Worland, Wyoming, in response to a booming jackrabbit population, and once the magnitude of eagle mortalities became obvious, the company began work to retrofit the power facilities.

The thing is, power companies have been doing this retrofitting since at least the 1980s. Why the heck it has taken so long to get it done in this extremely important area for eagles flabbergasts me.

I guess we’re lucky. Wyoming hosts a thriving golden eagle population, and even though it appears golden populations are on the decline in states throughout the West, eagles here seem to be holding their own (despite the big loss to PacfiCorp).

Hawkwatch International is a fine organization devoted to long-term monitoring of raptor populations. Of all the Hawkwatch monitoring sites in the West, only western Wyoming’s Commissary Ridge site showed increases in golden eagle numbers in fall 2007 over the long-term average. At that site, located about an hour southwest of our ranch, 328 goldens were counted, a 24-percent increase from the long-term average at that site. The timing of the count should have provided for monitoring of a resident population, not our winter migrants.

There is some indication that golden eagle populations fluctuate with our jackrabbit and cottontail rabbit populations, which experienced substantial population booms in the mid-2000s, but it appears the jackrabbit population in western Wyoming has crashed this year. We’ve also suffered nine years of drought, with this year providing our first decent moisture in a decade. It could be that we’re about to see a decline in eagles, with the crash of a primary prey species.

Recent research has attempted to present a West-wide population estimate for golden eagles. The research, conducted by Western EcoSystems Technology of Cheyenne, Wyoming and published in 2004, indicated that Wyoming has 4,174 pairs of breeding golden eagles, the highest of any state and nearly half of the known breeding population in the West.

But one of my favorite research citations involves a survey conducted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel in the early 1970s. FWS personnel recorded their golden eagle observations as they went about their duties, driving, year-round. The number of golden eagles observed per 1,000 km ranged from 1.2 in Arizona to 10.4 in Wyoming. The more recent WEST research involved aerial surveys for goldens, and detected 12 eagles per 1,000 km flown in Wyoming during late August/early September survey efforts. That’s a lot of goldens.


Matt Mullenix said...

Those 232 dead eagles could have supplied the US falconry harvest for the next 100 years at least.

Considering how difficult it is to get a permit to train one, it's amazing to see how easy it is to kill them by hundreds.

Anonymous said...

Here in the upper Mississippi, are wintering goldens. In "Wisconsin's Natural Communities" by Randy Hoffman, he writes in the chapter on SW WIsconsin's Wildcat Mountain State Park; "Relict communities of the glacial and post glacial periods are still found along the Kickapoo River." He goes on to discuss some of the plants and habitats that support them, (for example we have an arctic plant on 1 north-facing cliff on the Kickapoo, the Lapland Rosebay) Hoffman continues "Every winter at four locations within the driftless area, several golden eagles overwinter. This species is most commonly associated with the western mountains but there's a healthy population summering in the Canadian arctic. Part of that population consistently overwinters in Wisconsin with 4 to 6 golden eagles found annually near the upper Kickapoo River between La Farge and Ontario. I speculate that ancestors of these birds lived throughout the year when the driftless area was tundra. As the glacier retreated north along the tundra, this population of golden eagles moved north to nest but still maintained its connection s to its homeland by wintering in the driftless area."

This past late winter, a friend saw two goldens copulate near the visitors center at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, 8,569 acres of preserved land just south of Wildcat Mt. State park.

And a stab at an accurate definition; "Driftless" means without drift or without the rocky detritus left by retreating glaciers. This area was a high area in the path of the glaciers, and they spread apart and went around and reformed below, thus, this is rugged terrain with much forest remaining, and historically the region was a reservoir for plants and animals to spread back out onto the landscape after the glaciers retreated. Pretty neat place to live! ~Maggie

Cat Urbigkit said...

Oh Matt, you put the situation into perspective perfectly.

Maggie, that's a great golden eagle heritage, and it looks like the National Eagle Center would be a great place to take a road trip to watch wintering balds as well. Thanks for sharing.

Steve Bodio said...

Maggie, I really want to see that country someday!

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