October 7, 2005
Source: University of Calgary:
G8 Legacy assisting golden eagle research in K-Country
U of C scientists join volunteer eagle-watchers to determine health of the golden eagle population
Suspicions that migratory golden eagles might be in trouble have led the G8 Legacy fund to support a long-term project that has been monitoring the annual movement of golden eagles through the Kananaskis valley for the last 14 years.
Providing eagle counters with a home base at the University of Calgaryís Kananaskis Field Station at Barrier Lake and subjecting their data to rigorous scientific analysis is the latest example of how the environmental research fund established to commemorate the 2002 G8 Summit in Kananaskis Country is enhancing understanding and protection of the wilderness area west of Calgary.
"Getting this help has been fantastic and enormously useful," said Peter Sherrington, founder and research director of the Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation. "What started as just an interesting project is leading to some important findings for ecosystem management," Sherrington said. "Itís good, old-fashioned, natural history-style of science, which is often the most important kind of biological study. Unfortunately, itís often the most difficult study for which to find funding."
U of C biological science professor Dr. Ed Johnson, holder of the G8 Legacy Chair in Wildlife Ecology and director of the Kananaskis Field Stations, said helping the foundationís work is a perfect example of how citizens and scientists can work together to produce valuable knowledge.
"This eagle project has two important aspects that the G-8 chair wants to encourage: The first is to bring together citizen and university scientists to contribute to long-term monitoring of important ecological and environmental processes. The second is to encourage ecological research on what appears to be emerging topics of interest," Johnson said.
An avid naturalist, Sherrington is credited with discovering that thousands of golden eagles undertake annual long-distance migrations between wintering grounds in the southern United States and northern Mexico and breeding grounds in Yukon and Alaska. The initial discovery occurred in the spring of 1992 when Sherrington and a friend were conducting a bird survey in the Mount Lorette area and recorded over 100 eagles flying north through the area in a single day. Believing they may have found a migration route, Sherrington returned to the area in the autumn and counted over 2,000 eagles flying south. Sherrington and volunteers from the foundation have returned every spring and fall to count eagles and systematically document the migration, spending dawn until dusk counting eagles for as many as 200 days per year. They have completed over 2,000 days and 20,000 hours of observation and recorded over 90,000 golden eagles.
For reasons that are still unclear, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 of North Americaís 100,000 golden eagles travel upwards of 11,000 kilometres each year while the rest of population doesnít migrate at all.
"Before we started the count, it was believed that golden eagle migration took place exclusively in the foothills, involved relatively few birds, and that long-distance migration wasnít occurring," Sherrington said.
Johnson said discovery of the migration path will improve the long-term monitoring of the population.
" If, in fact, the front ranges of the Alberta Rocky Mountains form the single corridor on which they migrate, we may have an excellent way to monitor the populationís increases and decreases with the help of citizens," Johnson said. "However, we still need to know more about the breeding numbers in Alaska and what is happening to the wintering population in the United States."
Thirteen years of population data have led Sherrington to believe the migratory golden eagle population is declining. The last three spring counts have recorded an average of 2,600 birds passing through the area, compared to more than 4,000 that were seen during spring counts in the 1990s.
That prompted U of C research associate Dr. Shane Richards to investigate Sherringtonís concerns.
"There are definitely some patterns in the data. The population could be declining or it could be due to natural population cycles related to food availability and other factors," said Richards, a mathematical ecologist who began working with the data last year. "Eagles can live for up to 20 years, so weíre going to need more data and expand the number of monitoring stations in order to make strong conclusions," he said.
Richards recently to a faculty position at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom but plans to continue working on the golden eagle project with U of C researchers.
The G8 Legacy Chair in Wildlife Ecology represents half of the $5 million the federal government committed to environmental legacy initiatives related to the G8 summit. The other half was used to build wildlife crossing structures at the Rundle Canal in Canmore and along the Trans-Canada Highway near Deadmanís Flats.
Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation founder Peter Sherrington, G8 Legacy Chair in Wildlife Ecology holder Dr. Ed Johnson, and researchers from the U of Cís Kananaskis Field Stations will be available for media interviews and photo opportunities at the Barrier Lake Field Station in Kananaskis Country today from 10 am until 12 pm.
A visit to the foundationís golden eagle observation post at Hay Meadows, near Nakiska, will follow.
Directions: The field station is located on the south side of Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country, opposite the Barrier Lake recreation area. Park in the main parking lot and proceed to the laboratory/office building.
For more information about the Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation, visit the website: www.eaglewatch.ca
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