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Bernheim’s research ‘critical’ to eastern golden eagle conservation

Two people hold a golden eagle in a forest. The bird's wings are spread wide, and it looks behind them.
Bernheim Forest
Mike Lanzone and Dr. Tricia Miller, hold up a golden eagle.

Researchers at the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest have spent nearly a decade tracking golden eagles as they migrate between Kentucky and Canada. Now, the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group is now using that research to develop a conservation plan.

Using solar-powered GPS trackers, researchers and the public have followed along as Harper the golden eagle traveled to Canada, found a mate, raised young and was lost to the wilderness.

Today, Bernheim continues to track Harper’s widow, Athena, who took off in early March to migrate to her summer nesting territory in Wapusk National Park.

U.S. Geological Survey Research biologist Todd Katzner said Bernheim’s work helps serve as a foundation for a conservation plan for the eastern population of golden eagles.

“The work that Bernheim is doing is really critical to understanding where these birds are living, what they are eating,” Katzner said. “If we want to develop effective plans to protect these species, it’s really critical we understand their ecology and biology.”

Last week Bernheim hosted the eighth meeting for the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, a collection of scientists in nonprofits, government and academia, working toward the conservation of golden eagles.

For a long time, scientists didn’t know a lot about golden eagles living in the eastern U.S. Golden eagle populations are significantly smaller than the nation’s symbol, bald eagles, and are more exposed to risks facing small populations.

“One reason we really rarely see these birds is that it can be really hard to pick out a brown bird in a brown forest on a gray day in Kentucky or anywhere else in the Appalachian region,” Katzner said.

Today, researchers think the population that winters in forested areas like Kentucky includes as many as 8,000 eagles, a significantly smaller subset of the North American population compared to the western group.

Threats to golden eagles include lead exposure from scavenging carcasses left by hunters, and wind turbines, but Katzner said research into eagles could help. If people can figure out at what altitudes the eagles are flying, for example, then perhaps the turbines could be adjusted to protect the species.

Katzner said the group is now in the process of finalizing the conservation plan for the eastern population of golden eagles.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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