A group of 16 golden eagles with an affinity for hunting domestic sheep in Wyoming are on the verge of being trapped and relocated in order to mitigate conflicts with ranchers. The project will also serve as research on the species.
The project, being lead by a team at Colorado State University, will affix tracking devices on the birds that will allow for the movement and habits to be monitored by scientists for the next three years.
Tracking the birds’ movements will also allow proactive steps to be taken to prevent them from finding new locations to prey on their favorite food – farm-raised lambs.
Trapping efforts will be undertaken by certified professionals and the birds will be relocated up to 400 miles away from their current hunting grounds. The birds will be removed from 7 different ranches where they continue to cause headaches by eating sheep and costing ranchers money.
Mitigating the impact of wild animals on domestic stock is a common practice for other predators like bears, wolves, and mountain lions. However, a project to mitigate eagle predation on such a large scale is far less common.
Adult golden eagles can grow to more than 3.5 feet long from beak to tail, with wingspans of up to 8 feet. The birds weigh between 7 and 12 pounds on average – about the same size as a newborn lamb. That makes them an easy target is given the strength of the eagle’s wings and talons.
Golden eagles have been protected since 1962, making it illegal for ranchers to kill the birds even if they pose an imminent threat to their livestock.
In one documented instance from the 1970s, the birds preyed on almost $50,000 worth of domestic stock in one location. More recently, in 2019 eagles consumed 25 of the 200 lambs born on just one Wyoming ranch.
An increase in eagle fatalities caused by poisons in recent years indicates that ranchers are willing to take matters into their own hands without state intervention.
As scarecrows and other means of passive conflict mitigation have proved to be ineffective, live trapping and relocating birds first gained popularity decades ago. Between 1975 and 1983, more than 450 golden eagles were trapped and removed from just one Montana ranch.
In the late 1990s, a significant number of the birds were removed from a California island as the predators were on the verge of driving three subspecies of foxes to extinction.
With documented home ranges of up 77 miles, only time will tell if moving the birds such a long distance will have a tangible impact.
A similar relocation project in the early ’90s discovered that 12 of 14 translocated returns to their original capture areas. However, the birds were relocated in much closer proximity than what is planned for the new project.
It will be interesting to see how this project shakes out.
In the meantime, here’s a countdown of the 15 craziest eagle attacks ever recorded.