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A new film shows how golden eagle population research can tell us a lot about the changing West

Chuck Abbe
Wikimedia Commons

A new film that will air on Wyoming PBS in August, focuses on golden eagle research in the Big Horn Basin. Lead researcher Dr. Charles Preston began looking at the raptor's populations way back in 2010.

"Golden Eagles: Witnesses to a Changing West" shows how the results of his research can tell us a lot about the rest of the environment in the West. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska asked Preston why he got interested in the golden eagles.

Charles Preston: The golden eagle is an icon of the wide open spaces of the American West. And it is a true indicator of environmental health or quality of what's going on in there. It's sort of a window into that world. And particularly in the sagebrush steppe. Cody as part of that Bighorn basin area, that's primarily sagebrush steppe. It seemed that to me, and especially around the Greater Yellowstone region and beyond that, the West is changing very rapidly. Whether it's energy development, agriculture, especially urban sprawl, residential sprawl, more and more of this big wide open landscape is being gobbled up. And so I became especially interested in that.

Kamila Kudelska: At least in the description, the film is really saying that it concentrates on how golden eagles are portraying the general environment, the changing environment. So can you go into a little bit of specifics of your research? It wasn't only about their population, but how you learned more about the environment around it due to looking at golden eagles?

CP: Yeah, we learned that the fluctuations in this environment that there's not a steady trend, it's more an up and down and up and down. Now, what we focused on (was) eagle reproduction, but we learned how the different parts fit together. I'm working on a book, as a matter of fact, called "The Eagle and the Rabbit", because it really showcases this really complex relationship between these two species, and then all the other species that interact with them. And so there are so many factors. I used to say that ecology is not rocket science, it's much more difficult, much more complex, at least. And, I think that's true. There's so many moving parts in this that you cannot control whether various populations, environmental change brought about by humans, and in natural causes, natural wildfires, for example. All of these interact, and we've seen them interact.

In these last 14 years we've been doing this work, every year we learn something brand new about the system. This year, for example, we're finding so far, and we were certainly not ready to publish this yet. But we're finding that this regular cycle that we've seen through for about 14 years, in fact, are broken, in a sense. We model predicted at a certain level of reproduction from the Eagles and a certain abundance of cottontails. And these last two years, the numbers have actually gone down a bit instead of cycling up as we expected. We think that may be due to a novel virus that's been introduced in the system and that's rabbit hemorrhagic disease. That's affecting the rabbit population. And therefore, that ripples all the way up through the food chain to golden eagles and of course, other predators as well, which then can affect other prey species and vegetation. So those are the things that we're looking at.

KK: I wonder if you can go into a little more detail about the importance of the golden eagle to Americans' perception of the West?

CP: [It's important] for so many people, native people and cultures around the world. Keep in mind the golden eagle actually occurs throughout the northern hemisphere. It's a very widespread raptor and at the top of the food chain. So it certainly has a great deal of ecological importance in terms of regulating prey populations or controlling prey populations. Even as scavengers they help control the spread of disease by scavenging rotting carcasses and such. So they have a huge role to play in the ecosystem. But with humans, they seem to embody in so many different cultures, they seem to embody power, strength, maybe even freedom for some folks.

Some native cultures in North America felt that they were the messengers to and from the gods, and so [they] identified very much with eagles. Eagle feathers, as you know, are extremely important and especially in Plains Indian culture as symbols of again, in some cases power, in some cases, a respect for nature for the wild. So, yeah, that's true. I think there are five different nations that have the golden eagle as their symbol, it's on the flag. And many more that use that iconography, in many ways. So it's a spectacularly large, powerful raptor.

When you see one soar above, it is awe inspiring. It really is. I mean, it's not very scientific, but it's absolute, that's what connects with people.

Golden eagles, because of that huge wingspan, are one of the raptors that don't live in the forest. That's one environment they don't thrive in. They like these wide open spaces, and so they are intimately and inextricably linked with wide open spaces - relatively intolerant of much human disturbance. And so you put those things together, and you see them as this symbol, as this indicator of wild, wide open spaces.

KK: Just from the rough copies and the rough cuts that you've seen, I wonder what you hope people will take away from watching this film?

CP: For one thing, and on a personal level, I think that none of us would like to see our work as disposable. We'd like to see it have a long life. And this is one way that it extends and hopefully can reach people on various levels really. I'm really pleased with what they were able to do. Actually, I'm amazed at what they were able to do and in bringing the landscape and the people and so many different aspects together. They captured some just amazing footage and tell a compelling story, I think, of not only the golden eagle but the process and product of science and studying wildlife and a conservation note on this relationship with one species to this broader environment.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.

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