Protecting nesting golden eagles and peregrine falcons is a major concern
Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown hosted the first of a series of scheduled public meetings in the Bitterroot National Forest to develop a forest-wide climbing management plan. The first meeting mainly focused on the effects recreational climbing can have on rock-nesting birds of prey such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons.
Brown said climbing, like most other recreational activities in the country’s forests, is increasing due to the growing number of visitors. With this increased use comes an increased impact on the terrain and the animals that inhabit these forest ecosystems. He said some places across the country are “loved to death.” He said that climbing activity was increasing rapidly here at Bitterroot and the agency wanted to “get out of it”.
Brown stressed that developing a climbing management plan must require high public participation and a transparent process. He said if all parties don’t understand the rationale behind the management plan, they won’t get involved and if they don’t get involved, it won’t work.
“We want to promote sustainable climbing in the future and at the same time minimize the impact,” he said. Brown noted that efforts to create a forest-wide climb management plan are not starting from scratch. Conflicts between climbers and other forest users came to a head a few years ago on some of the valley’s most popular climbing gorges. There has been controversy and conflict in Mill Creek Canyon, including threats and actual acts of sabotage. New ownership along Kootenai Creek at the tree line and the ever increasing use of the property by climbers also called for attention. He said it was obvious that the forest department needed to do something. A moratorium has been imposed on the installation of new bolted climbing routes and intensive efforts have been made to communicate with all users in the area to establish some sort of rules.
Brown said the results of these conversations have been very productive and the high levels of collaboration and communication are encouraging. “We have a track record there with proven track records,” he said, “and that’s what I want to build on.” He said engaging the public in this type of stewardship process is critical to moving forward with effective management rather than simply to resort to enforcement. He said moving forward programmatically to establish some ground rules for the entire forest is the best way to proceed.
Brown said the process in creating the plan will focus on identifying the key issues that arise given the diverse interests of different forest users and the needs and health of the ecosystem. He said he thought it would be a good idea to start with an issue that many have already recognized, namely the potential for climbers to negatively impact the large birds of prey like golden eagles and peregrine falcons that nest on some of the canyon’s rock faces.
According to Bitterroot National Forest wildlife biologist Dave Lockman, there were no known peregrine falcons in the Bitterroot in the 1970s and 1980s. He said peregrine falcon and eagle populations across the country have declined, mainly due to the use of DDT. Peregrine falcons were reintroduced to the Bitterroot in a five-year program sponsored by the Peregrine Fund and the Liz Claiborne Foundation. The reintroduction has been very successful, according to Lockman, with peregrine falcons having immigrated to at least 17 canyons in the Bitterroot in the past 30 years. He said 94 to 96 nests were permanently occupied. He said that in 2014 and 2018, some golden eagles also successfully brooded in Mill Creek Canyon. He said the collaboration between the Western Montana Climbers Coalition, Bitterroot Audubon and the people of the Peregrine Fund has been very encouraging.
Eric Murdock, Policy Director of the Access Fund, said a new handbook entitled “Climbing and Raptors – a Handbook for Adaptive Raptor Management” will be released in about a week. It was the result of a collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the National Park Service.
Murdock said scientists have been discussing since the 1960s creating a buffer area around nesting birds of prey to reduce the abandonment of nests. He said many factors were identified, including the characteristics of the cliff, the type of human activity in the area, tolerance of the birds, and other specific seasonal disturbances. He said evidence shows that some sort of buffer zone works within the nests’ viewing shed. He said the size of the buffer zone needed depends on the characteristics of the field of view.
Micki Long, president of Bitterroot Audubon, said her organization and the Montana Peregrine Institute both believe that protecting peregrine falcons and golden eagles should be part of the forest plan. Long referred to a landmark study conducted by Richardson and Miller in 1987 that documented that both visual and auditory glitches can interfere with successful nesting. She said the recommendations in the report include keeping an 800-meter buffer zone, which is about half a mile, away from nesting birds of prey.
She acknowledged that there may be disagreement about the extent of a buffer zone, she said,
“Most climbers want to support birds of prey and protect resources and will be partners,” said Long, “but when in doubt, we have to take the bird’s side.”
Brown reminded the group that the intent was to mitigate, not eliminate, the effects and it was important to use the best available science in doing so. He said it was obvious that the problem of nesting birds of prey was a problem for almost everyone. Now he said the question was, is it a reasonable alternative to do nothing? If not, what management is required? What is our intention? Which measures can we identify as necessary?
“Whatever we recommend, it has to meet our needs,” said Brown. “I don’t want it to be unnecessarily restrictive.”
The information gathered and suggested solutions to problems gained during these ongoing monthly meetings will be posted on the Bitterroot National Forest Story Map at (https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/6f18fccfa609409eaee82f39e4f4f4e3) and can be used as both a progress tracker and a also as an information hub for the public to find out about the process and the status of the development of the climbing management plan.