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Resilient golden eagles a sign of hope after Washington wildfires

Golden eagle nestling prior to the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014. Photo by Scott Fitkin/Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Resilience” is a big word, but an important one, when referencing wild animals and their ability to traverse adverse circumstances.

In 2014, eastern Washington was ravaged by several major forest fires lasting several weeks and eventually converging in what was termed the Carlton Complex Fire. The complex overlaid the area where 17 golden eagle nesting territories are located, including at least two territories where we had just deployed satellite transmitters on nestling eagles prior to the fire.

Pre-fire golden eagle nesting habitat. Photo by Jim Watson/Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As I anxiously monitored movements of the young birds remotely, via satellite, I was disappointed when both signals went off the air including one in a remote canyon east of Twisp. Subsequent visits to search for the eaglet were unsuccessful, and we determined that the young eagle perished in the fire.

Canyon where golden eagles nested after the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014. Photo by  Jim Watson/Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Scarring of the adjacent land was substantial, including loss of many of the large pines in the canyon and nest stand. Ground cover was absent for several miles, as were signs of potential prey including small mammals and birds, as well as the adult golden eagles.

A side-by-side look at the before and after. 

Fast forward to spring 2015. As part of Woodland Park Zoo’s Living Northwest conservation program, we initiated a cooperative study to assess post-fire occupancy and productivity at the affected eagle nests. 

When I was able to finally access the nest area after heavy snow melted in April, I didn’t expect to see any eagles, but was pleasantly surprised at what I saw: an adult female golden eagle incubating on the old nest tree in the refurbished nest! Subsequent visits found her feeding and raising two nestlings. 

Although not all the eagles affected by the fires are nesting successfully this year, the experience of this eagle pair to survive the fire and re-nest a year later accurately exemplifies “resilience.”

Golden eagle—the picture of “resilience.” Photo by Bob Ruse/Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Editor’s note:  Woodland Park Zoo raptor keepers are active participants in Jim Watson’s golden eagle work. This spring, keepers were in the field conducting golden eagle occupancy surveys as part of the effort to evaluate the effects of the extensive Carlton Complex Fire. Initial survey results are being analyzed now, but it appears as though we may see fewer young produced in the burn territories. 

Learn more about Northwest wildlife and how we can coexist safely at Bear Affair: Living Northwest Conservation Day presented by Brown Bear Car Wash, Sat., June 6, 2015.