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Golden Eagles vacationing in West Virginia

The Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group was founded in 2010 after it was discovered that Golden Eagles were not occasional visitors but regular residents in the eastern Appalachian highlands.

Recently the U.S. Forest Service’s Wings Across the Americas program honored the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group with its 2013 Research and Management Partnership Award.

“We put this group together to try to bring all of us that are interested in this species so that we could really hone in on some of the key issues and key problems that the species is facing,” says co-founder of the working group, Todd Katzner.

The group is comprised of biologists, conservationist, wildlife and land managers from federal, state, and local organizations. There are also members from Canadian institutions since the eagles typically breed in Quebec.

“We really try to get people from all parts of the conservation world so that we can have an effective and holistic approach to conservation and management of the species.”

Golden Eagles are well known in Western North America. To the untrained eye, the birds look like juvenile bald eagles. But bigger. Their wings can span nearly eight feet and with their exceptionally strong talons and agile flight skills they’ve been known to drop larger prey. Katzner says they like to nest in remote areas and data is now demonstrating that migration patterns stretch from northern Canada through upstate NY and as far south as GA.

“One of the really neat things for listeners in the West Virginia area is that some of our preliminary work is suggesting that West Virginia is really right at the center of Golden

Eagle winter range in eastern North America—which is really exciting for those of us who live here.”

Katzner says 200 years ago the eagles were breeding in NY and ME but those populations died off. He suspects the widespread use of the insecticide DDT is largely to blame for the birds’ disappearance. In an effort to better understand them today, the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group is developing a natural history database.

“We’re trying to figure out where these birds are present, how they move through the area, what types of behaviors they engage in, what types of habitats they use. All that stuff is really critical to management of these populations.”

Katzner explains that developing wind energy poses a very real threat to eagles because giant wind turbines are being constructed in the very wind highways that the eagles rely on in their migrations.

Hunters also pose various threats.

“When a lead bullet hits a deer it fragments into potentially hundreds of pieces. Those fragments can go far from the entry and exit wounds so if there’s a gut-pile it almost certainly contain lead in them. Golden Eagles eat those gut piles. Birds are much more susceptible to lead poisoning than are humans. So those of us who care about conservation of Golden Eagles are tying to switch to non-lead ammunition. There’s lots of good non-lead ammunition out there that’s very effective.”

Katzner says leg traps—both illegal and legal have been the demise of thousands of eagles.

“If you’re a trapper and you find a Golden Eagle in a trap try to get that bird back to a wildlife conservation officer or to a local wildlife rehab center because often if a bird is released with a trap injury, it may be able to fly off but it will succumb to either infection or starvation because it can’t use that leg.”

Katzner says they are cataloging these direct threats and also indirect threats like habitat fragmentation and habitat loss. He and his group aim to get a better understanding by compiling their research.

“We put a motion sensitive camera out there in the woods with a roadkilled deer and we leave it. We let the Golden Eagles and other species come in and through this we’re beginning to get an understanding of the distribution of these birds throughout West Virginia landscapes to understand where they are and where they aren’t and that way we can begin to develop a management plan.”

Katzner hopes research he and his colleagues do will help them to better understand and manage threats that the Golden Eagles face.