Dustin Maloney is in sagebrush country in remote northern Utah west of Snowville on a grueling hiking trip full of dust and heat and sweat. He’s got one eye looking for snakes and the other on the ground so he doesn’t lose his step and take a perilous fall.
A team is with him. They have plenty of water, plenty of energy, but will they have plenty of success?
Maloney, with two ropes as anchors, is rappelling down a cliff. They’ve gone 150 miles in this day, in this quest. Their goal is to find a baby, but not just any baby.
On another day, Steve Slater and Maloney are southwest of the Great Salt Lake at Dugway Proving Ground. U.S. soldiers are flying drones. Some are off the shelf, some are military-issued. As the drones climb into the sky, Robbie Knight feels a flutter. He looks at the images on a touchscreen from the ground below and his heart rate, like the drones, is beginning to climb.
This, he thinks, is a honing of U.S. military skills capable of defending not only this country, but her allies, and it is all 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, 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.
He finds two bodies.
When he returns to the top, he is matter-of-fact.
“The birds are dead.”
A horrible year
This has been the worst season for nestling survival rates of the golden eagle that Slater has seen in at least 40 years.
Both he and Maloney are with the nonprofit Hawkwatch International and blame a disease that is wiping out the population of jack rabbits, one of the eagles’ chief source 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 and the recent results have been grim: about half 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 age 5 or 6, and the oldest example of the species was 31 when it died here in Utah.
The information compiled by the GPS transmitters is used to build a database so biologists and conservationists get a more thorough documentation 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 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act — coexists with Department of Defense military installations, especially Dugway Proving Ground in a remote section of western Utah.
That affords a chance at a unique partnership; for several years, the nonprofit Hawkwatch has partnered 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. It garnered the 2020 Resource Conservation and Resiliency Project of the Year by the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program.
Since 2013, the GPS transmitters have been placed on nestlings more than 70 times through 2020.
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.
Slater said the military’s own mission is at risk if harm comes to the animals, so the Department of Defense began funding the GPS transmitter placement and working in conjunction with Hawkwatch International and others to document the nests and survival rates.
The military and Hawkwatch engaged in a three-pronged 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 and it is a win-win because it not only helps the eagles but they are training themselves to do a mission.” In other words, save the eagle, train the military.
“It’s been really good training to find mom on the nest and dad on a ridge line,” he said. “It’s really good training because it is comparable to tasks they might be asked to do in an operational setting,” Knight said. “As a piece of real estate set up to support national defense, anything we can do to make it more effective and easier for soldiers, that is as good as gets.”
Mitigating the threats
It’s a good start to know where the nesting locations are of the golden eagles, but it is the first step in minimizing their demise from human activity and loss of habitat due to urban encroachment or habitat degradation.
Slater said that ironically, it is the oil and gas fields near Price in central Utah that have provided Hawkwatch International more invaluable information.
Before any surface disturbance can occur for extraction of natural resources, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies require extensive reviews that include potential impacts to nesting sites.
“Oil and gas development led us to know more about nesting locations. They’ve had to do all sorts of helicopter surveys and provided really detailed records about where they are and they are monitored aggressively.”
A half-mile buffer is required if there is a nesting location on site.
“A half-mile buffer seems to be pretty good at protecting the golden eagles,” Slater said.
When industry is clearing ground for pads and pipelines, they also clear out the pinyon juniper, which Slater says helps the golden eagle because the vegetation hinders raptor hunting.
Operators of wind farms have also proven to be a fruitful partner in this effort to minimize fatalities that can occur when other birds or an eagle collides with a blade on a wind turbine.
His group has worked with wind farm operators in San Juan County’s Monticello area, where the turbines are quickly shut down in advance of an approaching eagle and has also engaged in an extensive vehicle-collision study spanning three states, including Utah.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, vehicle collisions are suspected to constitute a large percentage of the 545 estimated annual golden eagle mortalities attributed to all types of collisions in North America.
The Eagle Vehicle Strike project, at completion of its second phase, documented 73 vehicle-struck golden eagles over a five-year period, and researchers believe the numbers to be more alarming.
Golden eagles venture onto roadways to feed on road kill and often get killed.
Wind farm employees in rural Utah, as part of a way to mitigate fatal collisions eagles have with wind turbines, could possibly offset overall bird deaths by scampering out into the highways and pull the road kill to a safer feeding spot for the eagles.
Slater said options remain under review as the research wraps up.
The study area involves 1,850 combined survey miles in Utah, Oregon and Wyoming. It concentrated heavily on Oregon and Utah during three consecutive fall/winter seasons.
The research has been coordinated extensively with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Western Golden Eagle Team, individual state game agencies and departments of transportation, as well as the wind industry, with results expected soon. The study has largely been funded by the wind industry.
Perhaps the greatest threat to the golden eagle and other animals that inhabit the sagebrush-steppe system is raging wildfires that have taken out the sagebrush and left invasive cheat grass in its place.
For those engaged in the research to better document and understand the golden eagle, stopping ecosystem destruction is critical. The evaporation of the fragile ecosystem is not only due to wildfires but to man’s activity.
Since the golden eagle is an apex predator — at the top of the food chain — how it fares is a good barometer of the environment’s health.
“They are an absolute indicator of how we are doing with these large landscapes,” Slater said. “They really tell a story that is important for the ecosystem in general and how all the other animals are doing. They tell us what we are putting in the environment.”
Searching for a nest
Each of the programs are designed to save the golden eagle. But it is left to the on-the-ground (and up in the air) expertise of those who venture out to tag the eagles and monitor their survival that brings researchers up close.
“I am definitely not afraid of heights,” joked Maloney, a 35-year-old research associate and rappelling expert who has been with Hawkwatch International for eight years.
“We make sure the system is redundant and we find the least scariest way down into the nest ... we are very methodical,” he said. “The whole nest access, the dangerous component of these cliff faces, that is just part of the job. It gets my adrenaline going. I have this higher sense of adventure.”
Maloney knows enough to refrain from putting himself in a dicey situation, but he’s struggled to maneuver through dense crumbling rock only to encounter a nestling that is to say the least — underwhelmed at seeing the invading stranger.
The nestling is put in a bag, carried to the top of the cliff and fitted with a special hood to keep it calm. The entire operation is brief and the nestling is returned home.
Maloney keeps going back, year after year, to engage in this risky research because of the draw of a bird that is so charismatic it crept into his very fiber.
“I love this species of bird, everything they represent, their desert habitat,” he said. “Sitting there and watching this species do their thing. ... It is hard not to fall in love with them. You get interested in this species and its population. The more you understand, the more you care.”
Of course, Maloney says he doesn’t know everything there is to know about the golden eagle. They are enigmatic, remote, occupy far off spaces and have extensive territories. There is much left to learn, and Maloney is OK with that.
“I love biology so much, but if I wanted to be right all the time I would have gone into math.”