By Miriam Raftery
April 19, 2013 (San Diego’s East County) – David Bittner, eagle expert with Wildlife Research Institute, pled guilty to federal charges of unlawful taking of a Golden Eagle without a permit and failing to file any data reports for a four-year period on birds that he had banded.
Bittner conducted studies on Golden Eagles for Iberdrola’s Tule Wind project in East County, which was approved by the federal government on public lands as well as by the county on private properties. Portions of the project on state and tribal lands, where several Golden Eagle nests were reported, are pending approvals by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and State Lands Commission.
“Can those agencies rely on Bittner’s Golden Eagle work for Tule wind that was apparently unpermitted and unlawful?” asks Donna Tisdale, chair of Boulevard Planning Group and a founder of two citizens groups, Protect Our Communities Foundation and Backcountry Against Dumps, that has filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the project. “What other breaches of law or professional ethics might be involved?”
She added, “We will be following up with this new information in our federal complaint filed against federal approvals of Tule Wind permits.”
Terry Weiner with the Desert Protective Council called today's announcement "disturbing news. Dave Bittner has had a good reputation in the conservation community," she noted, but added, "I would think that that Dave's guilty plea that he was working without a permit and did not file reports would result in all of his work on this project being unusable."
Weiner believes this revelation should result in the BIA and other agencies having to go back and "do this essential research again. I would think that the state and federal agencies should put this project on hold," she added.
Bittner could face up to one year in custody and/or a $100,000 fine for his actions. He is scheduled to be sentenced on July 11, 2013 at 1:30 p.m. before Judge Bartick (Case #13cr1391-W)
In a press release issued April 18, 2013, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy announced that the Bittner, a Julian resident, had been denied renewal of a federal bird banding permit that expired January 31, 2010 because he failed to report any data for birds he banded since October 31, 2006.
“The lack of data is particularly troubling because it is just this sort of data from permit holders that permits the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service to monitor the health of the eagle populations within the United States, the release notes. Despite lacking a permit, Bittner continued to capture and band 144 migratory birds in the region, including at least one female Golden Eagle.
Unlike Bald Eagles, which have rebounded in population after the insecticide DDT was banned, Golden Eagle populations have dropped, Bittner himself has acknowledged. Golden Eagles are listed as threatened species and any “take” is prohibited, including any disturbance that could cause injury or interfere with breeding, feeding or sheltering behavior including nest abandonment.
U.S. Attorney Duffy concluded, It is a sacred trust to preserve our natural heritage for future generations. This trust mandates that we observe both the spirit and leter of laws designed to protect the environment.”
Wildlife biologist Jim Wiegand says the missing data raises some key questions. "What was the purpose and terms stated with the original permit? What was the banding data that Bittner not provide? " he asked in an e-mail sent to ECM. "This could be extremely important. If it was GPS then it could be that the data showed eagles flying right into wind farms and never coming out. It is also possible that the banding data may coincide with eagles found dead (with bands) at wind farms. Maybe he actually banded very few eagles but made it look like he did for to create the illusion that there are lots of eagles. Lastly pleading guilty could be the lesser of two evils for his institute WRI to receive funding from wind interests and mitigation money from installed wind farms."
Mark Duchamp with Save the Eagles International had this to say when asked for comment. "Essential info is missing: is the eagle dead?
If the eagle is neither dead nor injured, the ornithologist could argue that banding an eagle is not "disturbing," he observed. "Or did he do more than banding? Did he, for instance, put a radio-tracking device on the eagle's back...In Scotland, two golden eagles died as a result of radio tracking for a feasibility study for a windfarm project in their breeding area. The windfarm was built. Its name? - Beinn Ghlas. But the news of that never made it to the media. I reported it in my article. Anything you put on a bird's back messes its feathers, and over time affect their waterproof qualities. This can kill any bird," he added, citing risk of pneumonia when a bird gets wet.
This is not the first time that questions have been raised about Bittner. His Wildlife Research Institute recently published a report concluding golden eagle population declined 50 percent in San Diego County in recent years.
However, that report blamed hikers encroaching on nesting areas as the main cause, failing to mention wind projects as posing any threat to eagles locally although wind projects elsewhere have slaughtered many eagles, as ECM previously reported. Notoriously, the Altamont wind project in northern California has killed thousands of Golden Eagles. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has estimated that wind turbines kill almost half a million birds each year, though some studies sugest the number could be as high as 39 million birds, San Diego Loves Green has reported.
Bittner also claims to have conducted 600 helicopter surveys of local Golden Eagles since 1996. So where is the data he collected? He has estimated that San Diego has around 46 nesting pairs of Golden Eagles, though wildlife biologist Jim Wiegand has indicated he believes the number could be far lower.
Wiegand estimates the Golden Eagle population has declined 80 to 90 percent in California in recent years – and he believes wind turbines are the primary cause. “No Golden Eagles have nested in the 86 square mile boundaries of Altamont Pass since at least 1989,” he told San Diego Loves Green. “Many of the dead are young eagles just leaving their nests and learning how to hunt. They wander out to hunt amongst the turbines and end up mutilated…With so many eagles being killed by turbines I do not understand how anyone could not mention this threat.”
Wiegand has also questioned Bittner’s conclusions regarding Tule Wind; he estimates perhaps as few as 10 Golden Eagle pairs may be left in San Diego County. A representative at Bittner’s Wildlife Research Institute has indicated that nests are not designated as empty unless they have been vacant for five years.
More wind projects are proposed for our region in historical eagle habitat including Jewel Valley, Shu’luuk Wind and possibly a project on the Manzanita reservation, in addition to Tule Wind and the existing Kumeyaay Wind facility.
“If these projects go forward and Jim Wiegand is right,” Roy Hales at San Diego Loves Green recently concluded, “San Diego’s Golden Eagle population may disappear.”