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Bitterroot Valley Eagle Project drawing a crowd

Eagles, like this Bald Eagle near Stevensville, are being spotted in ever increasing numbers wintering in the Bitterroot Valley and feeding at the many carcass stations located around the area. Michael Howell photos.

By Michael Howell 

The Bitterroot Valley Eagle Project is drawing a lot of interest from the local raptors. They are attracted by the dead carcasses that have been placed at various stations around the valley and don’t seem to mind all the cameras. But it’s the overwhelming interest in the eagles being shown by the general public that has really impressed MPG Ranch raptor researcher Kate Stone.

The project, now in its second year, is sponsored by the MPG Ranch, the Raptor View Research Institute and Bitterroot Audubon. This winter 30 carcass and remote camera stations have been placed around the valley on private property of willing landowners. That’s up from last year. Photographs are taken automatically at the sites and include many animals besides the intended Golden and Bald Eagles. Other animals caught on film while feasting on the carcasses include coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats and even an occasional bear.

The project produces so many photographs, literally thousands of them, that it takes a small army of “citizen scientists” to cull through the photos, making whatever identifications they can. This is made possible by posting the photographs on the web platform Zooniverse. Once on the site, scroll down to Western Montana Wildlife where you can sign up to do some identification work. Instructions are provided on the web site.

Some of the eagles are captured and banded and a few even have radio transmitters mounted on them to track their movements. Past information has led researchers to think of the Bitterroot Valley overwintering population as coming down from northern Canada and Alaska seeking milder weather. But, according to Stone, there have been some “cool” re-sightings this winter that are changing the way they think of the overwintering population here in the Bitterroot.

One Bald Eagle was spotted with a radio transmitter that was not part of the local project. This eagle was banded at a station in Arizona in 2008-2009 and was photographed at a station set up near Roaring Lion. Stone said this bird was banded by the Department of Defense and the data collected is not public. It has flown 750 miles from where it was banded.

Another eagle spotted near Sula was banded in Catalina Island, off the coast of California, in 2016. This bird travelled 850 miles east from where it was banded.

Stone said that this discovery is getting them to re-think why birds are migrating here for the winter from every direction. What impresses Stone more than anything about the research so far is the sheer number of eagles that choose to overwinter in the Bitterroot valley.

Not all the stations have been placed in the same spots as last year. Stone said some stations have been set up a little higher up along the fringe of the valley floor where they are more likely to attract Golden Eagles. She said that Golden Eagles are a little trickier to attract than Bald Eagles. They seem to prefer a little more solitude and hang out on the fringe of things. But the Goldens are of special interest because their populations are dwindling. So far, they have tagged more than 85 Golden Eagles as part of the project compared to only 20 to 30 Balds.

The only thing putting a dent in the research project at this point, according Stone, is the lack of fresh carcasses. Stone thinks the new law that allows people to take a road killed deer may be cutting down on the number of road kills that are called in. Most of the deer used as bait in the project she picks up off the roadside. Anyone who spots a road killed animal can call Kate Stone at (406) 318-1115 and she will come and pick up the carcass.

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