Golden success: Eagle capture and research partnership continues
Eagles killed more than 3,200 sheep in Wyoming in 2020, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, nearly doubling the losses to eagles reported in 2019. Most of the sheep losses were lambs, but golden eagles have been confirmed as killing adult sheep as well.
Montana Eagle Falconer Mike Barker told attendees at the recent Wyoming Wool Growers Association winter meeting that with recent population declines in rabbit and hare populations, it appears golden eagles in the state are shifting to more frequently preying on pronghorn antelope and domestic sheep.
“I think it’s happening more frequently, and I think it’s happening more systematically now,” Barker said.
Once an eagle learns to kill a sheep, this behavior can expand through the population of eagles inhabiting an area, he explained.
Barker noted a lot of the golden eagles wintering in Wyoming breed in Alaska. These Alaska golden eagles are bigger birds, he said, compared to resident birds.
In addition, Alaska eagles routinely prey on Dall sheep and caribou while in Alaska, and apparently shift to preying on pronghorn and domestic sheep during their time in Wyoming.
“It’s a pattern that could be challenging to break,” Barker said, noting livestock producers have few tools available for dealing with depredations by this federally protected bird.
A partnership between eagle falconers and domestic sheep producers in the state has added a tool which helps members of both groups by paving the way for falconers to capture depredating eagles and remove them for falconry use.
In addition, the program now includes a research component in which depredating eagles are live trapped, removed from participating ranches and released hundreds of miles away in order to track their response and movements while alleviating damages to livestock.
The crew of falconry volunteers captured a two-year-old male golden eagle in late May 2021 on a sheep outfit in the Powder River Basin and released it with a GSM telemetry transmitter south of Laramie, more than 160 miles away. This eagle proceeded to fly into southern Mexico, where it has remained.
With more than six months of tracking data so far, this eagle has not returned to the ranch where it was captured, and monitoring efforts will continue.
The golden eagle project has been spearheaded by Barker, who is the chairman of the International Eagle Austringers Association (IEAA), an international group of eagle falconers, with about 50 members in the United States.
IEAA, along with members of the North American Falconers Association, teamed up to place citizen scientists near lambing pastures to help monitor and document golden eagle predation in the state since 2019. This resulted in U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Wildlife Services’ confirmation of eagle depredation on 10 ranches in Wyoming and Utah.
IEAA assisted those ranchers in applying for depredation permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and four or more eagle depredation permits were issued each year, allowing falconry take. Falconers took home 14 golden eagles, including 11 in Wyoming and three in Utah. In addition, falconers trapped and relocated more than 20 other eagles, Barker said.
For decades, the FWS has been hesitant to allow the removal of golden eagles, only allowing up to six goldens to be taken for falconry nationwide, so nearly all the golden eagles used for falconry in the United States were captured in the wilds of Wyoming. But FWS had not allowed any eagles to be taken from the wild since 2011 – until Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) pushed through the amendment to the federal eagle protection act in 2018, which forces the agency to expedite depredation permits.
Barker said delays in getting depredation permits remains an issue, and in the future his group would like to see the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act amended to expand state authority to manage eagle take for falconry.
The eagle project is supported by the two falconry organizations previously mentioned, as well as WWGA, Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board, the Falconry Fund and the Wyoming Association of Predatory Animal Control Boards. The research is conducted by scientists affiliated with Colorado State University-Pueblo, U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and FWS.
Cat Urbigkit is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.