A new program at the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute aims to improve raptor conservation efforts in the state.
The institute’s Wyoming Raptor Initiative was formed to respond to the challenges faced by land managers, energy development companies and conservation groups in acquiring and implementing the best knowledge about raptors and their needs.
Raptors, which are birds of prey that feed on rodents and other small animals, are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Bald and golden eagles are given additional protections under a separate act. More than 20 eagles, hawks, falcons and owls make their home in Wyoming.
Birds, eggs and nests are protected from being taken or hunted, even unintentionally. Therefore, any development that might harm a nest or bird, or cause a bird to abandon a nest, requires additional permitting and planning with land and wildlife managers. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Bureau of Land Management are often part of the conversation.
Brian Barber, director of science programs at the Biodiversity Institute, remembers attending a county commission meeting in Campbell County recently to talk about raptors and the science behind mitigation efforts.
The Wyoming Biodiversity Institute focuses on research, education and public engagement as it works to advance the understanding and conservation of biodiversity.
Barber came away from the meeting with a new appreciation for the confusing and competing tangle of regulations governing the actions of extraction companies when it comes to protecting raptors.
“There’s a disconnect,” Barber said. “There’s a lot of information out there, and (we thought) wouldn’t it make sense for us to try to synthesize that into something that’s accessible for people that have to think about these mitigation efforts?”
The Biodiversity Institute hired Cameron Nordell about six months ago to do just that. Nordell, who is from Alberta, Canada, described himself as a “pragmatist” when it comes to science and conservation. His goal, he said, is to make sure policies are effective and efficient, and not just restrictive.
For example, ferruginous hawks are given a mile-wide buffer zone when they have an active nest because of their reaction to human disturbance. Nordell said a blanket regulation might not be best for every species.
“The body of research that’s coming out now about a lot of these species — if you look at any given raptor, it’s not going to respond to humans the same way as another one,” he said. “In a way, they almost have these personalities, and I’d like to explore how that can factor into these management policies that are very static.”
Barber said some research isn’t widely available, or it’s hard to decipher. He’s hoping Nordell can gather up all available raptor research, synthesize it, disseminate it and look for knowledge gaps that could drive future research.
“We want to dig up everything and communicate it and not work in isolation,” he said.
To offset activity that unavoidably disturbs or harms raptors, companies are required to complete mitigation projects intended to benefit raptors. Nordell said he’s been making a list of the various mitigation strategies that have been approved to see if they have scientific backing.
“You’d think that would be a question they’d ask up front, but not always,” he said.
A new mitigation strategy he’s got his eye on involves removing deer and pronghorn carcasses from highways in the winter because eagles feeding on the carcasses are in danger of getting hit by vehicles. However, the carcasses are still an important winter food source for the birds, so the best practice might be to remove the body from the road but leave it nearby.
“If you could do something simple such as dragging the deer off the roads and saving the eagles, that could be another mitigation option for an oil company,” Nordell said.
Another prong of the Raptor Initiative, in addition to Nordell’s research, is the Public Raptor Cam Project. Earlier this spring, Barber and Nordell set up a solar-powered camera above a ferruginous hawk nest located on an oil retainer tank west of Laramie.
Ferruginous hawks live in arid parts of western North America and eat mainly prairie dogs. Some individuals migrate south to Mexico, while others migrate south to Wyoming from southern Canada.
“We know they reuse the same nest, and they’ll nest on old windmills and all kinds of crazy human structures,” Barber said.
Barber said nesting ferruginous hawks are a rare sight for a camera.
“We’re pretty sure we have one of only two or three,” he said.
Nordell said the nesting hawks are a good example of the variability of raptor behavior within a species.
“There’s this flexibility in their behavior that’s hard to account for in management strategies,” he said. “This is an extreme example — there’s not a lot of birds that will nest on oil and gas structures.”
A live stream of the nest is available at the Wyoming Biodiversity Institute website, www.wyomingbiodiversity.org. About a month ago, the first two eggs appeared in the nest, and the first eggs hatched earlier this week.
On Friday morning, the camera showed an adult hawk tending to a pile of just-hatched chicks.
The chicks will grow quickly over the next 40 days, and by mid-July they’ll leave the nest while learning to fly. They’ll likely leave the area for the winter by September.
“They turn those prairie dogs into hawk (food) very quickly,” Nordell said.