“They’re eating the nose and going on. We’ve been told by experts that when they get into a situation of depredation rather than predation, it’s just wanton killing. They are killing two or three lambs a day just for the fun of it. It’s something that’s very mentally disturbing.”
Tommy Moore, rancher
At midday in November 2018, Mike Foster drove out to the Moore Ranch in extreme southeastern Johnson County. Foster, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, had been summoned by Tommy Moore to investigate an unusually high number of dead replacement ewes.
Most kills in the winter are attributable to coyotes, but Moore was confident that his coyote management program – including a full-time coyote hunter that took about 40 coyotes over the winter – was effective.
What Foster found was a surprise – even after a career in wildlife services.
“We observed around 15 eagles with a pretty even mix of bald and goldens and we observed three freshly killed replacement ewes,” Foster said “That is uncommon – to kill near-adult sheep. I observed talon marks with bruising in the carcass, which indicates that the animal was alive. That way I know the animal wasn’t dead when the eagles started feeding on it. That’s what I’m looking for.”
It’s not that eagle kills are unusual. What surprised Foster was that the eagles were killing nearly grown replacement ewes. More typically, an eagle might take a lamb in the spring.
That the ewes were killed by eagles was no surprise to Moore. The golden eagles that make their home on the Moore Ranch are bold, brazen opportunists that have learned that sheep are easy prey.
“I’ve seen a ewe lambing and she’ll lay there with twins, and the eagle will literally walk over and start eating that first lamb while she’s giving birth to the second,” Moore said. “When you see a ewe lambing, there’ll be two or three eagles on a hill just watching her.”
In the past five years, golden eagles have been treating his ranch as an all-you-can-eat buffet – feasting on lambs and replacement ewes.
“We had about 200 early lambs this last winter; out of that 200 head we’ve got about 25 left,” Moore said. “We visually witnessed eagle killings. And what we saw a lot of was baby lambs with just their noses eaten. They’re eating the nose and going on. We’ve been told by experts that when they get into a situation of depredation rather than predation, it’s just wanton killing. They are killing two or three lambs a day just for the fun of it. It’s something that’s very mentally disturbing.”
A fifth-generation Johnson County sheep rancher, Moore is familiar with the challenges of raising livestock – there will always be the weather to contend with and coyotes, but the golden eagle problem is new.
In a typical year, Moore anticipates a lamb mortality rate of about 15%. But in the past five years, that rate has skyrocketed, and in 2018, his ranch suffered a 53% mortality rate – an increase that he says is directly attributable to a surging golden eagle population.
“What we see is that the number of eagles is astronomical,” he said. “Where normally an eagle might kill a sheep or a lamb or an antelope and be able to come back to it for two or three days and fill their gullet, now there are so many eagles that within a couple of hours, there is nothing left of that kill. When they’re hungry again, instead of going back to the kill they made a day or two ago, they go and kill another animal. It’s pretty devastating.”
Because golden eagles are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, there is very little that a rancher can do, even if the birds are causing significant losses. But after watching his mortality rate climb, and observing eagles preying on replacement ewes, Moore knew that he needed a radical solution.
“My family’s been here a long time. The last thing we want to be is the generation that loses the sheep herd,” he said.
With the help of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association and the USDA’s Wildlife Services, Moore pursued a little-known federal permit that would allow the capture and relocation of some of the depredating golden eagles off his ranch and the removal of two eagles for falconry.
Getting the permit
First, Foster had to confirm that the kills were indeed from golden eagles.
Foster has spent 20 years in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and has worked with eagle depredation before. But when he learned that golden eagles were killing replacement ewes in November, he was surprised.
“I think a lot of it is learned behavior,” Foster said. “Typical eagle prey is rabbits or even small predators like skunks and coyotes. Sheep is not a normal food source for eagles, so when they learn sheep is a food source and they can exploit that food source, they will. These eagles on Tommy’s ranch, they’ve been taught through the years by their parents that sheep are a good food source.”
Wildlife Services’ chief duty is to assist livestock producers with depredation. Eagle depredation is tough to manage, according to Foster, because under the protection act, “you can’t even bother an eagle.”
“That’s why we’ve had problems in Johnson County with ranchers killing eagles – it’s tough to watch your livelihood get eaten,” Moore said.
In 2018, ranchers were given another tool to work with thanks to a provision that Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., included in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act. The provision directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use all the tools at its disposal to process permits for the “take” of predatory birds that are protected under other federal laws.
Practically speaking, the provision meant that the Moores could apply for a permit that would allow them to fight depredation three ways.
After confirming that the kills were indeed eagle kills, Foster declared the ranch a depredation area and recommended to the USFWS that Moore be allowed to combat eagle depredation.
“Typically we recommend a permit go to the rancher so that they can harass the eagles; we also recommend that the rancher be allowed to trap and relocate; and we also make a recommendation that they’re allowed to trap and falconers are allowed to take eagles into possession for falconry,” said Foster.
Making a plan
While securing a permit required working with the USDA, enacting the plan to trap and relocate the birds involved several federal agencies, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the North American Falconers Association, the International Eagle Austringers Association and numerous volunteer falconers and scientists from across the country.
Moore got in touch with falconry and austringer groups from across the country – an austringer is a person that uses birds of prey for hunting. His offer: Two golden eagles could be trapped on his ranch and taken for falconry.
“This is all tied to depredation,” Foster said. “We’re not doing this so falconers can get eagles. It’s a great thing for the eagles to be able to be taken into possession by the falconers – they’ll teach them to hunt rabbits, their typical prey. In some ways, we’re reforming these eagles through the falconry.”
According to Mike Barker, a longtime falconer and member of both the austringers and falconry groups, the right to trap and keep a golden eagle for falconry is like hitting the lottery. Only six permits are granted annually in the entire country.
“Instead of going out and poisoning or shooting eagles, they thought why not let the falconers have those eagles. And it was seen as a real win for the ranchers and the falconers,” Barker of Bozeman, Montana said.
Moore decided on a lottery system for selecting who would get the right to take an eagle. Twenty-seven eager falconers applied for the right to take a golden eagle for falconry, two of them were Wyoming resident falconers – their names were put into the hat twice so they’d have twice as many chances to win. Moore’s young son drew the winners.
The first name to be drawn was Jim Rogers from New Mexico. The second name drawn: Mike Barker.
“The second number was my number,” Barker said. “It was purely a fluke, but sure made me happy.”
Enacting the plan
Moore’s permit went into effect on April 15. Since then, falconers from all over the country have spent time on the ranch trapping golden eagles for relocation.
Barker said that falconers have been using modified ankle traps, similar to what would be used with big game.
“We’ve taken the springs off them and put much smaller springs on them and they’re rubber padded. It holds my fingers, but it doesn’t hurt,” Barker said. “They’ve been used to live trap eagles by researchers and biologists for decades. It allows us to set up one or two traps around a dead lamb and watch those traps.”
On April 20, Jim Rogers trapped an immature male golden that he took for falconry. Five days later, Barker trapped an immature female.
“It’s been a great opportunity for a ranching family and the falconry community to work together on this win-win that helps the ranchers, helps the falconers, helps the sheep,” Barker said.
Two additional golden eagles have been trapped and relocated away from the ranch. While relocating the birds gets them out of the area, handling the birds can deter them from returning to the area.
“It’s really beneficial to actually physically trap them,” Foster said. “The process of being handled is a very unpleasant experience for the eagle – they don’t like to be handled. While we don’t harm them in any way, it’s a very disturbing experience to be trapped, so that’s quite effective.”
Moore’s permit also allows him to “harass” the birds.
“They can drive out there, they can scare them off, they can use pyrotechnics – as long as you don’t cause injury to an animal,” Foster said. “Anything to try to drive them off. You can have lasers, you can have dogs trained to run out there and scare them off, shoot some gun blasts.”
And while all those scare techniques work for a time, eagles are intelligent birds and eventually learn that there is no danger from the loud sounds or vehicles.
“Nothing’s 100%, and anything that you do that is done constantly becomes ineffective,” Foster said. “Over time, these harassment techniques become less and less effective.”
Moore’s relocation permit is good through July 10, so more falconers have plans to visit the ranch in the coming weeks to assist with trapping and relocating golden eagles. Similar efforts to relocate eagles are currently underway near Rawlins.
In order to consider the program a success, many more eagles will need to be relocated, Moore said.
“Our goal is maybe by being manhandled and transported and being caught on sheep bait, that possibly they’ll leave sheep alone. We’re experimenting,” Moore said.
And even relocation poses challenges, including the possibility that eagles moved from one ranch may now pose a problem for a different nearby ranch.
“It’s hard to find places in Wyoming where there is not livestock,” Foster said. “An eagle that’s raised to kill sheep, that’s a method they’re going to use to feed themselves their entire lives. It’s very important to move these eagles into an area where they don’t cause a problem for someone else.
“In my opinion, bald and golden eagles have done an incredible job of recovering from historic lows, and we seem to have a healthy population in Wyoming.”
As an experienced falconer, Barker is realistic about the limitations of predation abatement measures. For example, he knows that if they relocate a mature eagle that is part of a breeding pair, it will find its way back to its mate at the Moore Ranch within days. And there is the sheer volume of eagles that they are dealing with.
“One of the things that will really limit this is that U.S. Fish and Wildlife has established what I think is an arbitrary limit of six golden eagles in the whole United States. If falconers remove six golden eagles per year, that’s not really going to benefit ranchers,” Barker said.
Moore’s harassment permit is good for five years, so he says he’ll keep bothering the birds, including using fireworks.
“We’re not killing them; we’re not hurting them,” he said. “We’re just trying to save our livelihoods here.”