It is seen, not often heard, in the western desert of Utah and along the expanse of the Great Salt Lake’s Antelope Island, where cliffs provide a towering view of the buffalo, the jack rabbits, and people biking and hiking.
The golden eagle uses these cliffs as a crib to raise its young, safely away from human threats and as a natural nursery that complements its stunning aerial abilities.
But not all is well with this species — in fact this year is about the worst wildlife experts have seen for it — and there are myriad reasons residents in Utah, the West and, in fact, the world should care.
Over the past few months, the Deseret News explored the world of the golden eagle, what makes it unique, what threats it faces and the important role it plays not only in a fragile ecosystem under siege but in amplifying military readiness for the defense of the United States and its allies.
Here are five key takeaways about the importance of the golden eagle, why it is a species that inspires awe and a bit of trepidation and how it intersects with our lives, even though we may not know it.
Eagles are protected
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, passed in 1940, prohibits anyone from “taking” either one of these birds without a special permit issued by the U.S. Department of Interior. It is illegal to even possess a feather, talon or egg of one of these birds, and simply disturbing a nest can bring up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
While the bald eagle is the symbol of the United States and both species are revered by Native Americans, the golden eagle holds an even higher place on the spiritual ladder by tribes — its feathers are the most coveted. According to the American Eagle Foundation, the birds are “honored with great care and shown the deepest respect. They represent honesty, truth, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, power and freedom. As they roam the sky, they are believed to have a special connection to God,” and are considered a special messenger to God.
Golden eagles are dying
The golden eagles are in trouble, and this year appears to be the worst in more than 40 years for the rate of nestling survival in Utah. High morbidity is due to RHD2, a strain of rabbit hemorrhagic disease that is decimating a primary food source — large jack rabbits. The disease was first introduced into the United States several years ago, has spread to Europe and was first detected in southern Utah last spring. Jack rabbit populations are cyclical in nature anyway, but during this nestling season as parents prey on food for their young, their success has proven increasingly dismal due to rabbit scarcity.
Read this Deseret News story about how something that is killing us, is also killing birds.
Golden eagles are apex predators
With a wing span of up to 7 feet and and its ability to dive at speeds clocked at 150 mph, the golden eagle is an apex predator with great strength, with talons exerting gripping strength at least 10 times that of a human. Wildlife biologists have found fawn carcasses in their nests. But their survival this year — even with all that strength — is tested by lack of food supply and human threats that include transmission lines, wind farms and even something as seemingly innocuous as the I-15 corridor stretching the length of Utah.
The Department of Defense is funding golden eagle research
With federal regulations protecting the golden eagle, the Department of Defense with its military installations in Utah has a huge vested interest in minimizing inadvertent harm to the species. Because of this, the largest golden eagle research was undertaken in the western United States and garnered national recognition in 2020. In the collaborative effort by the department and Hawkwatch International, researchers scale cliffs and trees to capture the nestlings, do a health check and put GPS trackers on them. The program has served as an exceptional training regimen for soldiers as they maneuver drones in the field to document the species and hone their skills for wartime readiness.
The plight of golden eagles shows there’s a problem for other species
Golden eagles are an indicator species in an ecosystem under attack. Raging wildfires in the West and human activity have ruined the fragile sagebrush-steppe system, wiping out sagebrush and other natural vegetation. In its place the highly flammable cheatgrass flourishes, and in a warming climate and relentless drought, the threat to nature and to people accelerates. Golden eagles prey on rodents and other small mammals, helping to keep that system in balance. As they flail and struggle to survive, it is one more tell-tale sign of an environment that has been upended, an environment we all depend on.