Group implements plan to help protect Utah’s golden eagles

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The golden eagle population is dwindling in Utah’s west desert, and a group of biologists have a plan to help protect them.

It's extreme research that requires climbing and repelling to get to the eagles' nests.

“We are in the grassy mountains in the west desert in an area that we have a lot of shrubs and cheat grass, and low cliffs where the eagles love it,” said Dr. Steve Slater as he looked through his telescope at the landscape.

Slater is a biologist with Hawkwatch International, a non-profit trying to put GPS transmitters on golden eagle nestlings. The transmitters track the movements and survival rates of the birds into adulthood.

“If it lives for 3 to 4 years we'll get thousands of points, and what we can do is overlay that on landscapes, we can look where fire had occurred, we can look at the habitat and vegetation and see the birds that make it, the ones that survive, what choices do they make,” he said.

The team of climbers found 4-week-old eaglets resting in a nest on a low cliff face. The scientists decide to only band the birds and come back later to put on the transmitters.

“These nestlings are a little bit younger than the ones we usually do, they are too small to put a transmitter on right now, so we may come back in a couple weeks, repel in again and put a transmitter on then,” Field Technician Eric Chabot said.

Researchers believe the recent decline in the golden eagle populations is tied to the invasive species, cheat grass, which causes wild fires to spread rapidly and destroys habitats.

“We put out 19 transmitters last year, and some of them were out in this type of area where we have a lot of the purple cheat grass and we've lost our shrubs, unfortunately none of those nestling survived that year,” Slater said. “All the birds we do have surviving came on the outside area where we still have some good shrub cover.”

Check out the YouTube video below for more footage of the eagles.