News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Wind Industry Wildlife Biologist Fined in Unlawful Eagle Handling

This eagle was fitted with a transmitter in February 2010, after the biologist's permit to handle eagles had expired. | Photo: Courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office

A Southern California wildlife biologist sentenced Tuesday for handling eagles without a license may have performed similar tasks for wind power companies while he was unlicensed, ReWire has learned. John David Bittner, who runs the Ramona-based Wildlife Research Institute, was sentenced to three years probation and a $7,500 fine for violations of the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA).

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Bittner, who has been capturing and banding wild birds since the 1960s, was also ordered by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge David H. Bartick to release years' worth of telemetry and other data he'd collected on eagles and other birds. Bittner had refused to give that data to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) -- though some of it was available to major donors to his Wildlife Research Center.

The maximum penalty for violations like Bittner's under the BGEPA includes one year in prison. Prosecutors hadn't asked for jail time, citing Bittner's reputation in the community, but had asked for a $10,000 fine in addition to the release of the telemetry data.

The case stemmed from Bittner's conducting study of eagles without authorization for an eagle "take," defined under federal law as killing, injury, or harassment of a protected species. According to the U.S. Attorneys acting as prosecutors in the case, Bittner's last federal permit to capture, band, and attach tracking devices to eagles and other wild birds expired in January 2010. Bittner attempted to renew his license with the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory that February, but was told that he hadn't complied with the terms of his previous license. According to the USGS, Bittner hadn't made the required reports of bird banding data to the USGS for four years prior.

Despite having no valid license to band eagles, Bittner apparently did just that under contract with developers of at least two wind projects: the Iberdrola Tule Wind project in eastern San Diego County and an unnamed Nevada wind project mentioned in the U.S. Attorney's sentencing memorandum,which ReWire has obtained.

If Bittner has failed to make the required reports on any data obtained through banding and tracking since 2006, that would seem to include those two projects, meaning that USGS and FWS likely have access to that data only in the form of contractor's reports to the companies in question -- meaning in turn that those companies had control over which science the feds got to see.

Bands are affixed to captured wild birds before release, usually but not always on a leg. In larger birds such as eagles, tags are often attached by means of a rivet driven through the loose skin on the wing's leading edge. Such "patagial tags" are thought by some to stress tagged birds, from both the initial handling and the persistent presence of a large intrusive tag.

Each time a band or tag is attached to a bird, the bird's species, gender, weight, general health, status, and location are supposed to be recorded. This information, along with the band's serial number, are supposed to be reported to USGS. When the tagged bird is spotted or its body recovered later, that information can then also be added to the federal government's database of bird info. It's an important tool for science, and in the case of eagles, the data derived from banding helps FWS determine the likely effect of wind turbine development on local populations.

The 2010 problem with USGS wasn't the first time Bittner had run afoul of bird banding permit regulations. The state of Ohio revoked Bittner's state banding permit in 1979 after his conviction on charges of illegal possession of wild turkey eggs, during a period when Bittner also illegally possessed a live snowy owl. As a result, from 1980 through 1997, according to the Sentencing Memorandum, Bittner held no active banding license at all.

Banding eagles in California requires that the bander also obtain a permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. DFW maintains that Bittner has had no such permit since 2000. (The U.S. Attorney's memo notes that while that's technically true, DFW did receive and cash Bittner's renewal checks during some of that period.)

It's not just California. Banders need to be fully licensed by whatever state they work in in order for their federal banding license to be valid. The Sentencing Memorandum notes pointedly that Bittner's work on that unnamed Nevada wind project was covered by no permits whatsoever:

During the period when Bittner had no federal permit, he also captured and tagged five Golden Eagles on June 1, 2010, in Nevada, while working on a wind power project. Not only did Bittner have no federal permit to capture eagles, he also had no permit at the time from the State of Nevada. A representative of the Nevada Department of Wildlife contacted Bittner a month later and asked if he had a federal permit for the work. Bittner admitted that he did not; stating that the permit process would take too long and he believed that his California permit (which he did not actually have either) would suffice since they were probably California birds. (Data submitted by Bittner showed that the birds were located in Nevada when marked.) Bittner further stated that he knew that the State of Nevada would not give him a permit since he did not have a federal permit.

According to the memorandum, Bittner's eagle work on a power substation project near Joshua Tree National Park would seem to include data derived from aerial surveys of sites within the park, apparently performed after the National Park Service had denied him permission to conduct those surveys.

A month after his federal permit had expired, according to the memo, Bittner tagged, affixed a transmitter, and released an eagle that had been found injured. The eagle was found dead two months later after an apparent collision with a wind turbine. According to the sentencing memorandum, Bittner failed to provide any tracking data on that eagle to DFW.

Not that Bittner isn't willing to share that data: according to the sentencing memorandum,

Bittner has refused the government's request to voluntarily provide the PTT data for use by FWS biologists. However, Bittner is willing to sell this data to any member of the public. According to a 2009 newsletter issued by Bittner's organization, the group has a program that will allow any person or organization to make a tax deductible donation of $333/month or $4,000.00 for a year to purchase a satellite transmitter. In exchange for their donation, the person is allowed to track a Golden Eagle year round on their home computer, with monthly updates showing the satellite data.

As tempting a fundraising incentive as that may be, the interests of science and wildlife protection require that federal agencies have unrestricted access to any such data collected by wildlife biologists.

We've been hard on FWS here at ReWire in the past, asking pointed questions along the lines of "Why Isn't the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Protecting Eagles?" Apparently, lack of cooperation by at least one established "biologist-for-hire" is part of the reason. If biologists refuse to share the information they gather on eagles, how can anyone expect FWS do its job?

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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