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Bird expert sentenced for illegal trapping of eagles

Downtown San Diego – The executive director of a well-known wildlife research facility in Ramona was sentenced to three years probation in federal court Tuesday after admitting to capturing raptors, including golden eagles, without the proper permits.

Since David Bittner pleaded guilty in April to the charge of Unlawful Taking of a Golden Eagle, his Wildlife Research Institute has lost most of its paid clients and will likely have to fold within the year, Bittner said in an interview outside of court. The research organization was well known for the free educational Hawk Watch seminars Bittner and others would host on Saturday mornings each January and February at its headquarters in the Ramona Grasslands.

Specifically, Bittner admitted to capturing and banding golden eagles and other birds during a six-month period in 2010 after his federal permit to do so had expired.

But the story is far more involved, according to court records and U.S. Magistrate Judge David H. Bartick, who praised Bittner for being a “distinguished biologist” but said it appears he let financial considerations supersede his commitment to preserving and protecting eagles.

“While Bittner has devoted his life to wildlife, the facts and circumstances surrounding this offense suggest that over the years, Bittner has come to believe that because of his experience in the field, the requirements of permits need not apply to him,” Assistant United States Attorney Melanie Pierson wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

“Bittner repeatedly violated the law by capturing and banding birds without federal and state permits, placing unpermitted devices on birds, conducting aerial surveys after authorization was denied, using wild birds in educational programs without a permit, allowing an eagle carcass to be brought across state lines, failing to properly transfer migratory bird carcasses in a timely manner, failing to immediately send eagle carcasses to the National Eagle Repository, and failing to provide the data he obtained to the government in a timely manner,” the memorandum states.

Bittner’s wife, Leigh, described the prosecution of her husband as a “witch hunt” and Bittner said he believes that during the “four-year ordeal” it appeared that “someone had it out for me.”

According to court documents and interviews, Bittner’s problems began in January, 2010, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Senior Special Agent Lisa Nichols began getting calls from the public about things they were seeing at Hawk Watch shows. Nichols attended the next week’s show and heard Bittner tell the crowd that three of the birds used in the program had been caught that morning and would be banded and released.

To use wild birds in educational programs requires a special permit which Bittner admitted he did not possess, Nichols said.

From there, a lengthy investigation ensued uncovering the fact that for 13 years Bittner had not had a valid permit from the state to capture and band birds, and that his federal permit had been suspended because he had not reported data on many of the bands in a timely fashion.

During the six months that the federal permit was inactive, Bittner trapped and marked 164 birds, including 37 eagles, the investigation showed.

In court Tuesday, the 68-yaer-old Julian resident told the judge that since his guilty plea, most of the companies he has done work for have dropped him or indicated they will not renew contracts. According to court records, in 2010 the Institute was paid $625,000 by companies to do bird studies for various environmental impact statements on such things as wind energy and power transmission projects.

Bittner’s attorney, Gerissa Santos, told the judge the institute has had to let go seven of its 12 employees in the past few months and is essentially broke. Bittner later said he doubted the institute will survive.

“I had no idea when I pled guilty that this would be the consequence,” Bittner said in court.

Bittner was placed on three years probation by the judge, ordered to pay a $7,500 fine, and ordered to hand over years of raw data he collected for his clients about the migratory behavior of eagles he had equipped with tracking devices.

Bittner said the data represents $2.5 million in research and that by turning it over to the government it would be subject to public records requests from competing biologists. Bartick ordered the data be turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency but agreed to the condition that it be shared only with other governmental entities.