A contrarian view on eagle conservation

I had published this on Jameson Parker’s blog in response to a question and it occurred that it would make an interesting little essay. But some have misunderstood it, so let me give you my conclusions before my reasoning:

I don’t think (Golden) eagles are in any way endangered, but I support protection for them.

I don’t think wind power companies and other utilities should get an automatic free pass  on killing eagles.

I don’t think any Indian tribes without a strong religious reason for taking eagles should be allowed to do so (I am encouraged that at least one pueblo now keeps live eagles, and attempts to breed them). I think that commercial exploitation of eagles and other birds of prey for their feathers by anyone is deplorable, and ideally should be ended. In today’s world, I doubt that it will.

The legal take of no more than six eagles for falconry was something that put less pressure on the population than any other conceivable use, and even added to the Indians and wind farms, would have a negligible effect. In all likelihood allowing ANY falconer who qualified to take an eagle would not make any difference. If officials were really worried about this, they could mandate that trained eagles be released into the wild after ten years as the Kazakhs do.

In the ideal world, conservation decisions should be based on biology. In our real world, they can’t be, not entirely anyway. Still, using a little information and pretending to a bit less hypocrisy would be welcome. And another thought: the educational value of trained eagles is not to be dismissed.

So, here it is:

I have a bit of a heretical stance about Golden eagles re wind farms. I dislike the amount of kills allowed for wind farms. But whether or
not the population is harmed needs at least two questions answered. One
is how many (Golden) eagles there are; the other is what else takes them
out of (breeding) circulation.

The first is never discussed except among biologists– it is as though
certain enviros do not want to ever say anything optimistic. The number
of Bald eagles got brought low, partly by persistent pesticides, and
now increases as it becomes ever more tolerant of human society. But the
number of known Golden nests (or rather the reasonably accepted
extrapolated number ) is AND MAY ALWAYS HAVE BEEN almost inconceivably
high, so high I am not inclined to quote it without access to the actual
data, except five figures of pairs in North America. (There are two
nesting pairs I know of within ten miles of where I write these notes).
This is never publicized, but you can track it down. The data is not
from livestock or energy apologists, either. Remember, there is an
untouched Arctic population, and ones in Labrador that seem to eat
herons in breeding season. The golden is so adaptable that there is a
Greek population that eats mostly tortoises. I doubt wind turbines will
dent those numbers or scare them away.

The Texans used to shoot hundreds every year and it seems to have
done little biological harm. Now wind farms are allowed to kill several
hundred a year, and Navajos and other Native peoples are allowed not
only unlimited hunting but utterly unlimited access to such species as Red- tailed hawks, not to train but to sell feathers. Which works out in
practice that every delinquent kid on a troubled reservation sees a
hawk on a pole and shoots it. Then probably sells it. While there are
serious religious uses of eagles by the Pueblos, there is also an
internal market, really illicit, in feathers for tribal dance outfits,
competitive and lucrative- and some sympathetic judges have decided
these commercial competitions are protected too. (Meanwhile one pueblo
has modified its ceremonies to no longer kill eagles, and has hired a
biologist to teach them how to keep them in a healthy way!)

Many activist types hate falconry as intolerable meddling with
romantic symbols, but a falconer’s eagle is not even lost from the
population– only “on loan” so to speak. The Kazakhs I rode with in Asia
let them go to breed after ten years, and eagles commonly live to over
30. Until now falconers were a allowed a take of  6 wild-caught Golden eagles a year, only from areas in Wyoming and the Dakotas with
proven sheep predation problems. Right now the government is inclined to
end this benign “use”. I wish that moralists and humane activists would
not go after the tiny portion of eagles allowed to falconers! If we
allow a small kill harvest from the tribes, an unknown yet amount for
wind farms, oil wells, roads and such, and want a healthy population… we
HAVE to set fairly rigid quotas to be safe. But known numbers could
easily allow a live take of up to six (or ten or whatever– except I
don’t think that there will ever be that many eaglers), some of which
would eventually even breed.

Meanwhile, in the warden- free lands of most reservations eagles
still exist only because of apathy– there is no protection. Ranchers
under 60 are more or less benign, and don’t shoot them (wolves are far
more threatening in both reality and reputation), but some angry young
rez kids kill every sitting bird they see, and sell the feathers no
matter what, as a demonstration that they “own” them Some tribes have
made clear falconers shouldn’t get any quota, because they are religious
symbols! A bit of Googling would show us the old regs, under which we
existed and complained for decades, while Texans shot hundreds or maybe
even thousands (see Don Scheuler’s Incident at Eagle Ranch), were uninformed– they now seem almost as unimaginable as
photos of the aerial dogfights with eagles when they were hunted from
planes. But, counterintuitively, they were probably biologically harmless
in that they didn’t– because they couldn’t– wipe out eagles. Morally
though, making dead eagles a commodity for anyone looks worse to me than
wind farms; commerce can drive extinction like stoking a fire.

        (Photo above from Life Magazine in 1953, from an eagle shooter’s view in Texas)

Why not reasonable quotas for falconers’ birds? Fewer privileges for
Indians, at least ones with no religious stake, as those don’t have the
built- in cultural reverence? And less posturing from anti- wind people
at least about eagles aka Charismatic Megafauna (the turbines may
actually be worse for bats, a group far more threatened than the Golden

Nepal Earthquake connection

The disaster in Nepal has taken a personal turn. Jean Louis and Catherine Lassez, long time  “semi- native” residents of the old Muleshoe Ranch fifteen miles out of Magdalena, Asia hands, Christmas hosts, originator of the barbecue for the Old Timer’s fiesta queen; artists, art collectors, keepers of as many dogs as us; above all dear friends, are among the yet un- accounted for in the Himalayan earthquake. (Scroll down).

This may mean nothing. They could have been on the road between Pokhara and Katmandu. They are resourceful, calm, experienced travelers, sometimes in  places even more remote, and communications there are terrible at the moment. But how can we, and their daughter Sara in LA, not worry?

This blog has long connections that only come to light  at certain times; one, for instance,  helped pay for Irbis’s leg operation. If anybody out there runs into our friends, let us know.

Last pic from Nepal this trip; Lassez 1968; J L with saddhus in Katmandu on  previous trip; all of us at Christmas; Lib & Catherine 2 Christmases ago;  various JL art parodies.

HAPPY UPDATE:  Just got word they are OK, just stranded, like everybody else, and better off than many; as I said, they are seasoned third world travelers.  They have braved “Myanmar”, and Lib reminds me they were in Indonesia when the big tsunami hit the area…

Paradigm SHIFTED

… decisively: not the “Cover of the Rolling Stone” as I have been calling it but, of course, that of Scientific American. I thought at first they were a bit late to the party, as it was the late John Ostrom who started the ball rolling with his discovery of Deinonychus, which he reported in SA in an article which suggested warm bloodedness but did not QUITE say feathers. That must have been (a lot?) more than thirty years ago. Robert Bakker soon called T rex the “20,000 pound Roadrunner from Hell”, but as far as I can see it was my old friend John McLoughlin who first dressed raptors in feathers in the popular press– 1979? I’m sure he’ll tell me.

Now proud Tyrannosaurs have them, in mainstream publications. On second thought, SA deserves great credit. It may be slow compared to the avant garde, but it is the FIRST popular magazine to portray a feathered tyrant, as well as the first to broach the ideas that led to it.

Two more thoughts. I counted only four sentences in- text that said “feather”– after paradigms shift, they seem “normal”.

Second, what do readers think about those poor naked chickens coming in the new Jurassic Park thing? And what about the less sophisticated public?

Rueful truth

Reid attended Tom McGuane’s signing for his new book of short stories, Crow Fair, at the Tattered Cover,  where they talked of Helen’s meteoric rise, gun nuts, and the blog– I was pleased to know he sometimes checks in. He was kind enough to send down an inscribed copy via Reid– thanks to both.

I have read several of these stories already, mostly in the New Yorker; some are funny, some very dark. I see a deep Irish thing there, transplanted to the Plains; I often find the same thing in North Dakota poet Tim Murphy: “Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death. / Horseman,  pass by…”;  though I think both Tom and Tim are merrier characters than Yeats…

But for some reason I went to the back of the book to read the last line of the last story and laughed aloud, albeit not without that frisson of recognition of one’s own mortality that accompanies such rueful truth- telling. It applies to me as well as it does to his narrator, and to Tom, who is eleven years older than I am. And  you’d better believe he did it consciously.

“Lately, I’ve been riding a carriage at the annual Bucking Horse Sale, waving to everyone like an old-timer, which I guess is what I’m getting to be.” 


                                               Constant commenter Lucas Machais wondered if the cover photo on the new ed of Querencia– the- book, seen below with my other  new covers, was “generic”. I am afraid I got more indignant than I should have. We pay attention to the particular here, not the general. I answered that the cover photo

“… was taken up Anchor Canyon five miles east in the Magdalena Range,
looking northeast over a cabin built by the Strozzis, a family of the
local Italian- Swiss “cousins” early in the last century, then over Lee
Henderson’s ranch where we run the dogs and hawks and Vadim Gorbatov
drew the quail. Strawberry Peak, where Charlie Galt found the
northernmost specimen of Crotalus lepidus, stands at the edge of the Rio
Grande Rift; the Big River flows north to south, left to right, behind
it and 2500 feet below.”

Dogs on ranch, Lee’s horses.

Lee and Gorbatov quail, Vadim with Libby on the ranch, and studying a Swainson’s hawk nest there:

Me with Charlie’s snake, a million years ago:

The infamous Ferruginous hawk nest made, all but the cup, of fencing wire, which so fascinated the Russians.

I had hoped to “quote” Russ Chatham’s cover painting of Betsy and her hounds on the original Q, itself an accidental near- quote of this well- known  shot  of Karen Blixen and HER hounds,  with this haunted pic of me on a Christmas hunt on the plain, but was persuaded, reluctantly,  to go with a different concept. None of this is anything but intensely local.  And all but the Blixen take place within the field of the first cover photo.