A tethered pigeon is bait for golden eagles, which
researchers trap, band and release. If all goes well and the researchers
are quick, the pigeon survives.
Throwing raptors into flight
—BECKY LOMAX, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
On an exposed ridge in Montana’s Helena National Forest, high
on the blustery Rocky Mountain Front, Rob Domenech recoils from
the wind in his baggy jeans and knit hat. From a cage of cooing
pigeons, he takes two birds and tucks them gently into the pockets
of his windbreaker. He walks 100 yards across the ridge, where he
pulls out one pigeon, wraps it in a Barbie-doll-sized leather vest
and clips the vest to a fine polyester string connected to a pole.
Then he huddles inside a camo-painted and branch-covered 4-by-8-foot
blind, binoculars at hand. He sits back, looking through the 4-inch-wide
windows, and waits for a raptor to swoop down for the pigeon.
It’s just another day on the job for the founder of Raptor
View Research Institute. Since 2001, Domenech has banded 105 golden
eagles — more than any other banding station in the U.S. Along
with banding raptors, his 4-year-old institute tracks migratory
goldens with satellites, monitors ospreys for heavy metals near
a Superfund site, and studies nesting Swainson’s hawks. But
it also aims to educate kids who aren’t necessarily honors
students—giving them the chance to launch a banded raptor
Crouched in the blind today, Domenech peers through binoculars
at a distant black speck in flight. Beside him, a teenage boy from
Missoula’s youth home squints to make out the bird. Is it
a golden? Like most visitors to Domenech’s raptor banding
station, the boy can see the faraway dot, but can’t distinguish
it from any other bird.
Domenech sees himself mirrored in these kids. When he was in fourth
grade, his father died, leaving his mom to raise the four children
alone. “It was all about keeping lights on and food in the
fridge,” says Domenech. “I was lucky I didn’t
get in any more trouble as a kid.” He survived his teens by
quietly daydreaming his way through school. A loner disappearing
into the classroom walls, he penciled dinner plate-sized drawings
of golden eagles on desktops. “No one was making me get through
school,” he says. “If I had dropped out, no one would
This fall, his work with at-risk kids will pay off when one participant
from Missoula’s Flagship Program joins the banding station’s
full-time staff. “He’s been exposed to more field science
at 19 than most university wildlife biology grads,” Domenech
Bird-watching was a skill he gleaned from his mother, who always
pointed out hawks. At the age of 18, Domenech accompanied a friend
to New Jersey’s Appalachian Trail, where a curt researcher
counting raptors snapped at hikers interrupting his work. “He
called in a merlin that did five tight concentric circles and then
zipped off out of sight,” remembers Domenech. “I was
Domenech was the kind of kid who memorized field guides—he
used to argue with his grandfather that buzzards were really called
turkey vultures—but it took him eight years to get his degree
at the University of Montana. “I was way too restless to sit
in class when I knew the migrants were flying,” he laughs.
In fact, he took off every fall semester during migration season.
Camping in his Ford Escort with Scratch, his Rhodesian ridgeback-rottweiler
cross, he spent months navigating logging roads to find good places
for watching raptors.
Back in the blind with the scared pigeon, searching through his
binoculars for a golden eagle, Domenech mutters, “They are
wiley.” As he flicks birdseed from his jacket pocket, he tells
me about his design for robotic marmot lures to replace live pigeons.
He also recently acquired a grant to fund three more satellite transmitters
on adult eagles to establish migratory patterns.
The second a golden swoops down for the pigeon, Domenech deftly
pulls strings to release the trap. He leaps out of the blind to
hood the eagle before it injures itself or kills the pigeon. The
Missoula youth-home youngster follows eagerly on Domenech’s
heels—this is his bird, his golden to throw into flight.
The author writes from Whitefish, Montana.
This article originally appeared in High Country
which covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues
from Paonia, Colorado.
Trash brings animals to recreation sites
—NEW MEXICO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME
It’s a story repeated regularly throughout New Mexico every
year. A black bear learns about all the great-smelling, tasty trash
campers leave behind, and eventually it loses its fear of people.
Then it becomes a nuisance in that or some other nearby campground.
Or maybe it wanders down to the nearest mountain town, and starts
living out of dumpsters and trash cans. Ultimately, someone calls
the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to come deal with the
On June 26, the Department killed a one-hundred-fifty-pound male
black bear in Pinos Altos because it had killed twenty-six chickens,
injured a goat, and chased other livestock. It had no fear of people,
and often was seen looking in windows of local houses. The agency
set a trap for the bear six days earlier, but the property damage
continued and finally the bear was killed. That bear started down
this road to ruin when it discovered trash.
A similar scenario played out in the Sandia Mountains on June
16. A female bear known to frequent the Nine Mile Campground near
Sandia Park was killed after it climbed into a house—twice.
Bears really aren’t the problem—trash is. Many campers
don’t handle their trash properly. They leave chip bags lying
around like cookies at Christmas. They leave sweet-smelling bottles
of sports drinks lying around campgrounds as if they are natural
mulch. That trash leads to bears, raccoons, and other wildlife becoming
habituated to the smell and taste of human food.
Early in June, the Department had to hire a Hazmat team to clean
three trailers full of trash out of seven vault toilets at the State
Game-Commission owned properties along the Pecos River. It took
three days. There were also bottles left all over the property—water
bottles, beer bottles, soda bottles, whiskey bottles, tequila bottles.
Some of the bottles were melted in the available fire pits, or broken,
creating a dangerous nuisance.
The Department of Game and Fish paid $6,242.19 in June to pull
trash out of the seven vault toilets in the canyon. It also paid
$2,336.52 in June to pump human waste out of the trash-free toilets.
This occurred just ten days after the Upper Pecos Watershed Association
did its own clean up along the river.
Trash disposal is expensive, and if not done right, it leads to
nuisance and/or dead bears. When you travel to the National Forests,
State Game Commission-owned lands, or other State properties, please
take a few minutes to shed some of the pounds and pounds of trash
you might be tempted to pack along with you. Here are some ideas
of how you can do that:
• Take a five-gallon jug of water, and not a case of those
small plastic bottles.
• Use fresh fruits and vegetables, not canned.
• Use a Dutch oven instead of wrapping everything in tin
• Take a big bag of cookies instead of the individually
wrapped one-hundred-calorie packets.
• Carry a trash bag and use it!
• Leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.
• Take your trash home with you, where you can dispose of
Littering is a crime. It also kills bears and other wildlife.
It costs your state wildlife agency lots of money to remove—money
that could be better spent improving Game Commission-owned properties
rather than hauling away your garbage.
Anyone with information about game-law violations is encouraged
to call Operation Game Thief at 1-800-432-GAME (4263). Callers can
remain anonymous and could be eligible for cash rewards if information
leads to charges being filed.
Black bears bite campers
—NEW MEXICO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME
State Parks and the Department of Game and Fish are emphasizing
the importance of proper food storage while camping, after a thirteen-year
old was bitten by what authorities believe was a small black bear
at Sugarite Canyon State Park’s Soda Pocket Campground on
Sunday, July 8. The incident occurred around 2:00 a.m.
The boy heard something brush against his tent, and thought it
was his relative playing a trick on him. He slapped the side of
the tent but ended up slapping what authorities think was a black
bear, which then bit the boy’s hand and ran away. The Department
of Game and Fish, who were called to the scene, determined that
the bite was from a small black bear, based on the bite marks on
the tent. The boy was not seriously injured but will be treated
with a rabies vaccine as a precaution.
“In the twenty-two years I’ve been at Sugarite, this
is the first bear bite; I think this is a rare case in which the
bear was reacting to the boy’s response,” said Park
Superintendent Bob Dye.
State Parks has installed bear-proof trash cans and bear-proof
metal lockers for food storage at many state parks in bear habitat,
including Sugarite. Park rangers also educate visitors through campsite
visits and signage about how to camp properly to avoid contact and
conflicts with bears.
Officials believe the bear may have been searching for food at
the campsite, because acorns and berries are not yet at their peak
and drier weather has caused bears to search harder for food.
Though the boy who was bitten said he did not have food in his
tent, even the scent of food on clothes can attract bears, which
have a keen sense of smell.
On July 12, a camper in a tent near the Gila Cliff Dwellings was
bitten by a bear early Thursday morning and subsequently underwent
Bill Thorp of Las Cruces was treated at a hospital in Silver City
for a bite to his buttocks. He said he was camping in the Grapevine
Campground about forty miles north of Silver City when he heard
something moving around outside his tent. He got up and shut the
tent flap, and was lying down inside when the bear bit him through
the tent. By the time he got out of the tent to see what had bit
him, the bear was gone.
Officers set a trap for the bears and track them with hounds.
Once caught, the bears are killed and the heads are sent to the
state laboratory in Albuquerque for testing. State law requires
that any wild animal that breaks the skin on a human be euthanized
and tested for rabies.
Intentionally feeding a bear or leaving food out can cause a bear
to become a nuisance, which could eventually mean the bear may have
to be killed. Violators can face fines up to $500.