Golden eagle talons.

Golden Problems, Working Solutions

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Imagine being a commercial sheep producer in Wyoming and losing 15 percent of your annual lamb crop to a federally protected predator. Then as each year passes, your livestock losses increase as more of those federally protected predators concentrate depredations on your flocks. The losses climb so that fully half of your lamb crop is lost to these predators. 

That’s the reality for Johnson County’s Tommy Moore of Moore Ranch Livestock, which lost half of its lambs to golden eagles last year. The Moore outfit had about 200 lambs born earlier this year, but 27 lambs are left alive at this point, with 80 percent of that death loss due to golden eagles.

It’s not a sustainable situation and everyone knowledgeable about this case understands that.

That’s why Moore has teamed up with the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, and Mike Barker of the International Eagle Austringers Association (a group of eagle falconers) to organize a coordinated effort to get some of the depredating golden eagles off his ranch. That work has drawn in several federal agencies, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, the North American Falconers Association, numerous volunteer falconers and scientists from across the country, and U.S. Senator John Barrasso. 

Barrasso – quietly and successfully – amended the federal eagle protection act last fall to require the director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to “use the most expeditious procedure practicable to process and administer permits” for the take of depredating eagles.[

“That really helped to push this through,” Barker said. 

A golden eagle in flight in western Wyoming.
A golden eagle feeds on a dead pronghorn antelope in Wyoming. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Prior to a mid-1970s study documenting severe eagle depredation on Montana lambing grounds, the public (and some wildlife agencies) were skeptical at rancher claims of eagle depredations.

Bart O’Gara of the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit documented a similar kill scenario to the Moore’s Johnson County ranch on two Dillon, Montana-area ranches in the 1970s. In one six-hour period, O’Gara found 15 fresh eagle kills on one ranch, and that year, federal officials removed 145 golden eagles from the two ranches, which suffered losses totaling 76% of their lamb crop. Over a period covering three springs, nearly 250 golden eagles were removed from the ranches and depredations began to decline.[

With USDA Wildlife Services confirming the eagle depredations on his Wyoming ranch, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued Moore a depredation permit allowing the removal of two eagles. Moore agreed to work with the International Eagle Austringers Association so that the two eagles removed pursuant to his permit would be used for falconry, while other eagles that are captured are to be relocated away from the area.

A total of 27 eagle falconers applied to trap a golden eagle, and two names were drawn, including lucky man Barker and another falconer from New Mexico. Within six days, the trapping team captured a male eagle for the New Mexico falconer, and three days later, caught a female eagle for Barker. Both are immature golden eagles, so they were not part of the breeding population.

Now that two eagles have been removed from the population under the depredation permit, all other eagles captured on the ranch during the 90-day term of the permit will be relocated away from the ranch. Two other eagles have already been relocated, and live trapping efforts continue.

A golden eagle feeds on a dead pronghorn antelope in Wyoming.
A golden eagle in flight in western Wyoming. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Similar efforts to stop eagle depredations on sheep have been successful in South Dakota. Other tactics, such as using scare devices, are generally viewed as ineffective at deterring eagle depredation on range sheep operations.

Eagle depredation on domestic sheep isn’t limited to newborn lambs, as Moore points out. They also attack and kill adult sheep and antelope. Golden eagles also killed a number of Moore’s replacement ewe lambs (weighing about 100 pounds) last fall. For the benefit of those not involved in the domestic sheep business, I’ll add that in my view, replacement ewe lambs are the future of any family sheep outfit.

While the eagle problem on the Moore ranch varies with the weather and with the season, the ranch experienced heavy damage in February (before his depredation permit was issued), and Moore expects problems to increase again this fall, if last year’s pattern is any indication.

The FWS has been hesitant to allow the removal of golden eagles, only allowing up to six goldens to be taken for falconry nationwide, so nearly all the golden eagles used for falconry in the United States were captured in the wilds of Wyoming. But FWS has not allowed any eagles to be taken from the wild since 2011 – until Barrasso pushed through the amendment to the eagle act last fall, and wool growers teamed up with falconers to push for action in Johnson County.

The wool growers/falconry partnership will continue, with numerous volunteer citizen scientists and falconers arriving on lambing grounds in other regions of the state in the coming days to monitor eagle depredations on lambs through the month of June. They will assist USDA Wildlife Services in confirming eagle depredations where problems are reported, which will set the stage for more ranchers to follow Moore’s lead in applying for depredation permits and requesting that falconers be allowed to trap and remove eagles from depredation areas.

The end result is that rather than pushing another domestic sheep producer out of business, the Moore family can continue their ranching heritage, and problem eagles will be removed from the wild, to hunt with their falconry advocates for decades to come.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.[

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