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Conservationists React to Eagle Biologist's Sentencing

Golden eagle | Photo: Ken Schneider/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In the wake of this week's sentencing of eagle biologist John David Bittner on charges of handling eagles and other birds without a federal license, Bittner's colleagues in the environmental realm are weighing in -- and they have harsh words for their colleague.

"The revelations really cast a shadow over the whole consulting biologist industry," said desert activist Terry Weiner.

Weiner works on Imperial County issues for the San Diego-based Desert Protective Council, at which organization (full disclosure) I was her co-worker from 2009-2011. She points out that Bittner and his group Wildlife Research Institute (WRI) did consulting work for several area energy projects during the period in which neither Bittner nor WRI held valid eagle take permits. Those projects include San Diego Gas & Electric's Sunrise Powerlink, Iberdrola Renewables' Tule Wind near Boulevard in San Diego County, Sempra's Energia Sierra Juarez Wind project in Baja California, and Pattern Energy's Ocotillo Express Wind project.

"These projects were approved based on biological surveys that were conducted illegally," Weiner told ReWire. "That concerns me very much. We need to reexamine the impacts these projects will actually have on eagles and other wildlife."

Boulevard activist Donna Tisdale, who works with the Protect our Communities Foundation among other local groups, was blunt in her assessment of Bittner's legacy. In an interview with the local publication East County Magazine, which has been following the Bittner story closely, Tisdale blasted Bittner. "Now we know why Bittner was the go-to-guy for the industry. His services, and whatever ethics or integrity he might have once had, were literally 'for sale' to the highest bidder."

Tisdale pointed out that the $7,500 fine Bittner must pay is pocket change compared to the more than $600,000 in income WRI received from the unlawful eagle work during the period in question.

Bittner and WRI have long been the target of skepticism from some local environmental activists, who questioned WRI's relative silence on wind development as a threat to eagles even as the group spoke out pointedly about other threats. The most recent newsletter on the WRI site raises the alarm that San Diego County's eagles are at severe risk of local extinction, but alleges that the biggest threat to those eagles is hiking trails, never mentioning the area's burgeoning wind turbine infrastructure once.

WRI does mention Sempra Energy elsewhere on its website: as a funding "partner" in its hawkwatch program.

Bittner, who founded and manages the Ramona-based WRI, was sentenced to three years probation and a $7,500 fine Tuesday, and was ordered to turn over several years' worth of radio telemetry data after pleading guilty to charges of capturing an eagle without permission from the appropriate state and federal agencies.

The charges to which Bittner pled guilty involved a single eagle, but as Magistrate David H. Bartick of the U.S. District Court in San Diego told Bittner at his sentencing, prosecutors could have filed similar charges against Bittner for any of the hundreds of eagles he had worked with from 2000 through this year.

Though Bartick could have handed down a much heavier sentence, including a year-long stretch in the federal pen, the sentence Bittner received was likely a negotiation attempt to extract several years' worth of eagle telemetry records which Bittner and WRI have so far refused to provide wildlife management agencies.

That telemetry info can detail eagles' migration patterns and daily habits, suggesting whether a particular ridge proposed for turbine development is a frequent hangout for eagles or whether they're just passing through, which is highly relevant to the level of threat a turbine will pose to those eagles.

Likely the best explanation for why Bittner's refusal to share that telemetry is a serious problem comes from an unlikely source: the WRI itself, which said, in the above-linked eagle newsletter:

It is imperative that all government land stewards, county agencies, and land managers be aware of the wildlife resources on their respective parks, preserves, etc. It is the responsibility off these land managers to keep current on the latest research and data coming from professional wildlife biologists and wildlife organizations, because the pressures on wildlife are many. Furthermore, it is necessary for land managers to be informed of how their management decisions affect nearby wildlife.

Despite the largesse from energy companies during the period with which Bittner and WRI conducted their activities without a license, Bittner's attorney Gerissa Santos suggested during the sentencing that WRI might close down for lack of funds due to adverse publicity. That's despite a WRI fundraising letter sent out in July that nowhere mentions Bittner's having pled guilty to violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act three months earlier.

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