Protecting nesting golden eagles and peregrine falcons a major concern
Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown hosted the first in a series of planned public meetings in the Bitterroot National Forest’s effort to produce a forest-wide climbing management plan. The first meeting focused primarily on the impacts that recreational climbing can have on cliff nesting raptors such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons.
Brown said that fueled by growing populations of visitors, climbing activities, like most other recreational activities on the nation’s forests, are increasing. Along with that increased use comes increased impacts to the terrain and to the animals that inhabit those forest ecosystems. He said some places around the country are getting “loved to death.” He said climbing activities were increasing rapidly here in the Bitterroot and the agency wants to “get out ahead of that.”
Brown emphasized that the development of a climbing management plan had to involve a high level of public participation and a transparent process. He said unless all parties understand the reasons behind the management plan they won’t buy into it and if they don’t buy into it is not going to work.
“We want to promote sustainable climbing into the future while minimizing impacts,” he said. Brown noted that the effort to create a forest wide climbing management plan is not starting from scratch. Conflicts between climbers and other forest users came to a head a few years ago on some of the most popular climbing canyons in the valley. In Mill Creek canyon there was controversy and conflict including threats and actual acts of sabotage. New ownership along Kootenai Creek at the forest boundary and a continually expanding use of the property by climbers also called out for attention. He said it was obvious that the Forest Service needed to take some sort of action. A moratorium was placed on installation of any new bolted climbing routes and an intense effort was begun to communicate with all the users in the area to establish some sort of rules.
Brown said the results of those conversations has been very productive and the high level of cooperation and communication has been encouraging. “We have a track record of demonstrated success there,” he said, “and I want to build on it.” He said engaging the public in this kind of stewardship process was crucial if they were going to move forward with effective management rather than simply resorting to enforcement. He said moving forward programmatically to set some ground rules for the whole forest was the best way to proceed.
Brown said the process in forming the plan would be to focus on identifying the important issues involved given the various interests held by different forest users and the needs and health of the ecosystem. He said he thought it was a good idea to begin with an issue that many have already recognized, that is the potential for rock climbers to negatively impact the large raptors such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons that nest on some of the canyon cliff sides.
According to Bitterroot National Forest wildlife biologist Dave Lockman, there were no known peregrine falcons in the Bitterroot throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. He said peregrine and eagle populations around the nation had plummeted, primarily due to the use of DDT. Peregrine falcons were re-introduced into 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 peregrines having moved into at least 17 canyons in the Bitterroot over the last 30 years. He said from 94 to 96 nests have been continually occupied. He said some golden eagles have also successfully bred in Mill Creek canyon, in 2014 and 2018. He said the cooperation shown between the Western Montana Climbers Coalition, Bitterroot Audubon and the Peregrine Fund folks was very encouraging.
Eric Murdock, Policy Director for the Access Fund, said that a new handbook was going to be released in about a week called “Climbing and Raptors – a Handbook for Adaptive Raptor Management.” It was the result of a cooperative effort between the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the National Park Service.
Murdock said that since the 1960’s, scientists have discussed establishing a buffer area around nesting raptors to reduce nest abandonment. He said a lot of factors have been identified, including the characteristics of the cliff, the kind of human activity in the area, the level of tolerance of the birds, and other specific seasonal disturbances. He said evidence shows that some kind of buffer zone within the viewshed of the nests works. He said the size of the buffer zone needed depends on the characteristics of the viewshed.
Micki Long, President of Bitterroot Audubon, said that 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 foundational study done in 1987 by Richardson and Miller documenting that both visual and auditory disturbances can disrupt successful nesting. She said recommendations in the report included keeping an 800-meter buffer zone, that is about a half a mile, from nesting raptors.
Acknowledging that there may be disagreement about the scope of any buffer zone, she said,
“Most climbers want to support raptors and protect resources and will be partners,” said Long, “but when in doubt, we need to err on the side of the birds.”
Brown reminded the group that the intent was to mitigate impacts, not eliminate them, and it was important to use the best science available when doing so. He said it was evident that the issue of nesting raptors was an issue of concern for almost everyone. He said now the question is, is taking no action a reasonable alternative? If not, then what management is needed? What is our intent? What actions can we identify as needed?
“Whatever we recommend, we need it to be adequate to meet our needs,” said Brown. “I don’t want it to be unnecessarily restrictive.”
Information collected and proposed solutions to issues arrived at during these ongoing monthly meetings will be posted on the Bitterroot National Forest’s Story Map at (https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/6f18fccfa609409eaee82f39e4f4f4e3) and can be used as both a progress tracker and information hub for the public to obtain information about the process and the status of the Climbing Management Plan development.