NRCC Research Associate, Michael Whitfield has been monitoring Bald Eagle populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem since 1980, focusing on birds of prey as windows into understanding the health of biological systems and as surrogates for those poorly understood systems. “Raptors function at the top of food chains, the ecological equivalent of wolves and cougars with wings,” Michael says. “If we succeed at conserving and sustaining habitats needed by these predators, we can expect to conserve much of the less understood web of life on which they depend.”
Michael’s work, which is supported in part by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, has three main goals:
- Monitoring: Bald Eagle populations were decimated in the mid-twentieth century by hunting and the use of pesticides like DDT. Today, more than 90 breeding pairs are nesting within Michael’s study area, a dramatic testament to the power of species conservation. Careful monitoring of these birds–including productivity, juvenile dispersal, adult survival and interactions between individual birds– enables Michael and his colleagues to ensure that this iconic species will continue to thrive in the GYE.
- Long-term research: While many research approaches can give a quick snap shot of a species’ health, it is only through long-term observation that we can truly understand its behaviors and idiosyncrasies. For example, Michael discovered that, while Bald Eagles are generally tolerant of human activity within their home range, they require nesting sites that are secure from human intrusion. He says, “Even after 30 years we continue to refine our understanding of this bird’s habits.”
- Contributing to conservation: Michael and his team work closely with land management agencies and landowners to sustain habitat values. Their findings contribute to several active conservation programs and continue to inform a better understand of the ecosystem as a whole.