Utah’s West Desert is a varied landscape of barren salt flats, foothill grass and shrublands, pinyon-juniper stands, and low, sparsely vegetated mountains. It is a harsh environment with few human settlements dominated by wide open public lands and restricted military training areas; however, many wildlife species are able to make a living here, including an assortment of raptors. We began formally surveying and monitoring nesting raptors in the area in 1998 through our Great Basin Raptor Nest Survey research. Our 10-year report on these survey efforts raised concerns about an aggressive invasive plant named cheatgrass. As the name implies, this species can cheat us out of our native grasses and shrubs through its propensity to grow and mature earlier than our native plants; it also causes fires that gradually eliminate valuable shrub cover and native grasses. In 2009, funding from the Legacy Resource Management Program of the Department of Defense (DoD) resulted in our partnership with several groups to conduct additional research into cheatgrass impacts on nesting raptors of the West Desert between 2010 and 2012, and to develop useful products such as our Improved Nest Survey Manual.
Unfortunately, one of the major stories we uncovered during our work is that West Desert Golden Eagle nest occupancy and egg laying rates experienced a sustained reduction beginning in 2008, likely related to widespread fire, shrub loss, and jackrabbit declines (see figure below). As a result, in 2012 and 2013 we were able to work with DoD and partners to focus more intently on Golden Eagles. We produced another report highlighting, among other things, the negative impact of fire and reduced shrub cover on eagle breeding activity and also produced a set of management recommendations based on our data and the collective knowledge and experience of the project partners. We also conducted winter surveys to investigate this previously overlooked season. Most recently, during the spring of 2013, we attached solar-powered GPS transmitters to 19 nestlings in western Utah to determine survival rates, movement patterns, and threats to young birds after leaving the nest.
This project was made possible by collaboration and suport from our partners Legacy Resource Management Program of the Department of Defense, Raptor Inventory Nest Survey, Kent Keller (Utah raptor expert), Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, Salt Lake City Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.