Ruth Stokes, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Chatsworth, was excited to download the latest data on the raptor, but also somewhat saddened to report that a long research project into golden eagle migratory patterns in the eastern United States is basically over.
The study was initiated at West Virginia University about a decade ago, working in conjunction with numerous state and federal wildlife agencies up and down the spine of the Appalachian mountain range. Todd Katzner, the lead researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey cited funding limitations, data overload and logistical issues as the primary reasons for shutting down the camera trapping/transmitter tagging investigation.
"Given the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (in deer) in Pennsylvania, this year we were asked by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to stop camera trapping while they try to manage the spread of CWD," Katzner said in an email to the various partners.
Throughout the study, researchers have used roadkill deer as a bait to attract golden eagles to specific sites in each participating state. In a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pennsylvania attorney Maximilian Merrill said, "Unfortunately ... we now know that the feces of avian and other animal scavengers can transmit CWD, potential disease-causing agents can thus be carried miles away from these feeding stations."
When an eagle comes down on the deer, a picture is snapped by a trail camera to record the activity and time of day. Once a feeding pattern is established, the research team uses rocket nets to trap the raptors when they come down to feed. They are then tagged and fitted with a tiny transmitter to track their movement and released.
Stokes also said the research has close to five million photographs from the trail cameras that someone has to cull through by hand to separate pictures of deer from other critters, and that has been extremely labor intensive.
In Georgia, the Department of Natural Resources Non-Game office has been helping with the funding for the transmitters, but Stokes said that in light of the shutdown in the Northeastern states, Georgia has decided to halt its participation in the program.
The team has been successful in trapping an eagle on a mountain ridge north of Rome each of the past two years. In 2017, a juvenile golden eagle was trapped, fitted with a transmitter and released in early February. It ultimately flew north, then west and was last recorded near Yellowknife, Northwest Territories of Canada. It has never been heard from since and Stokes said the research team believes the eagle may not have made through the summer.
Last year, an adult male was trapped February 22 in the same location and flew north and east, up the spine of the Appalachians into Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland in Canada. The bird spent a considerable amount of time along the St. Lawrence Seaway.
For the past week it has been pinging cell towers in southwestern Floyd County, along Taylor's Ridge into Chattooga County and up into Walker County, the same area where it was trapped a year ago.
"It's been all around the northwest corner of the state," Stokes said.
She said the transmitters are expected to be able to track the eagle for at least three years.
One of the reasons the study was initiated a year ago involved an effort to track golden eagle movement relative to the potential for putting up wind turbines along mountain ridges as alternative energy sources. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported a significant number of eagle deaths after eagles and other raptors flew into the windmills out west.