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Meet the Bald Eagle Expert (West Coast)
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
My journey from having an early interest in wildlife
to becoming a research scientist has taken me down one road with many different adventures.
During my early years and into grade school I was very interested in wild animals.
Because of the nature of my Dad's job, we moved around the western United States
and I was able to have "hands-on" experiences with wild animals--everything
from rescuing box turtles on the highways of Oklahoma, to collecting prairie dog
skulls on the prairies of Colorado. My parents were always very supportive of my
interest and I credit them with encouraging me to pursue this interest as a career.
In the 7th grade I was intrigued by the influx and departure of two migrant hawk
species near my home in Colorado--the Swainson's and rough-legged hawk. My sister
and I would collect pellets cast by Swainson's hawks, and break them apart to see
what they were feeding on (mostly grasshoppers!). At that time, I also became aware
of the mass killings of golden and bald eagles in Wyoming and Colorado, and became
increasingly interested in birds of prey. My Dad would take us on drives to eastern
Colorado to identify raptors, and see if we could spot my two favorites--ferruginous
hawks and golden eagles.
We became aquainted with Jerry Craig, raptor biologist
with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, who mentioned that a graduate student working
on golden eagles in northeastern Colorado needed some radio-transmitters for his
study. It so happened that my Dad was an electrical engineer, and he designed and
produced the transmitters for the study. For 3 summers in middle school I assisted
this graduate student, Alan Harmata (now a professor at Montana State University),
trapping, marking, and monitoring golden eagles and other raptors (see photo).
During high school I knew my career interests would require a college degree, and
so I worked as a computer operator and earned a bachelor's degree from the University
of Colorado in Biology. Just after graduation in 1978, I began my first seasonal
wildlife job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I spent four months searching
for nesting peregrine falcons and documenting raptor nests in Wyoming and knew I
had made the right career choice. Unfortunately, I was also in the realm that most
fledgling biologists find themselves in sooner or later-- few permanent jobs and
a competitive job market.
Figuring that another degree and greater experience would help my chances of landing
a job, with the encouragement and support of my wife, Ranae, I entered graduate school
at Montana State University in 1980. My thesis work was conducted in southeastern
Idaho where I investigated the winter ecology of the rough-legged hawk. During the
3 winters and summers in Idaho I gained valuable experience working with other researchers
on owls, prairie falcons, and golden eagles. In 1984, I graduated with an M.S. degree
in Fish and Wildlife Management.
A week after graduation I landed my first full-time
wildlife job--a wildlife research assistant studying bald eagles in Oregon. Although
I had seen bald eagles in Colorado, Montana, and Idaho, it was a new experience to
see them in such great numbers on the Oregon coast. For three years I worked as part
of a research team along the lower Columbia River where we captured, telemetered,
and monitored bald eagles, climbed nest trees and collected blood and addled eggs.
This population of eagles has experienced poor productivity for several years and
we hoped to determine the causes. After spending a few months consulting on wildlife
projects with the Department of Transportation in Washington, in 1987 I landed my
first permanent job with what was then Washington Department of Game. My title was
" Bald Eagle Biologist". I was responsible for managing the bald eagle
population in a 7-county area of western Washington, where most of the nesting and
wintering population in the state reside and where human populations are rapidly
expanding. I was a "guinea pig" in this new position since the job duties
were to develop management plans with landowners of eagle nest or roost habitat using
a new state law called the "Bald Eagle Protection Rules". Most of my daily
work involved using my previous knowledge of bald eagles to design the plans. One
of the highlights of the position was conducting the annual nest surveys throughout
In 1991, I became a Research Scientist within the Research Division of the Department
of Fish and Wildlife. The Division consists of 8 scientists that design and conduct
studies to answer questions that will help wildlife managers make sound management
decisions. Of course, you could guess that my area of specialty is raptors! I am
just completing 4 years of research on the effects of disturbance on nesting eagles.
We've also done extensive trapping, marking, and satellite telemetry work on breeding
adult eagles to determine their fall movements. The work has now expanded to include
a wintering study of bald eagles on the Skagit River. This river, and its' tributaries,
support up to 500 eagles that feed on chum salmon from November through February.
These salmon spawn on the upper river and their carcasses wash onto gravel bars where
the eagles congregate to feed. During the same time, recreationists congregate on
the river to fish for steelhead (a large rainbow trout) and watch the eagles. Because
of potential concerns for disturbance of the eagles from these activities, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and Department are funding a study to
determine where these eagles come from, how long they survive, and if their nesting
populations are healthy. The research began in 1996, and will continue for at least
3 more years. To determine where the eagles come from, we are using satellite telemetry
that allows me to retrieve the locations of the eagles right from my computer--within
an hour or two of sending a signal, I can tell where the eagles are several hundred
kilometers away! There are also small VHF transmitters on the eagles that allow us
to follow them on the river or locate them if they should die.
As always, my wife and sons, 12-year old Cory, and 10-year
old Jesse, often assist me on the study (see photo). Its hard to believe that these
"fledgling scientists" are at the age when I was 25 years ago when I became
interested in raptors--perhaps someday they will be "fully-fledged" raptor