By Miriam Raftery
December 30, 2013 (Ramona)--After 20 years, Hawk Watch, a popular wildlife educational program in Ramona featuring hawks, owls and eagles, has been cancelled for 2014 . Visitors can still go birdwatching on their own at the Ramona Grasslands Preserve, but there will be no organized presentations or up-close looks at captive birds of prey.
Wildlife Research Institute, which ran the program, announced the cancellation on its website with no explanation. But the decision likely stems from trouble raising funds for the nonprofit after news broke that its founder, David Bittner, was sentenced in federal court in August after pleading guilty to unlawful taking 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 was sentenced to probation and a $7,500 fine.Critics called that a slap on the wrist, since Bittner and the Wildlife Research Institute had raked in more than $600,000 in consulting fees for his work on behalf of large energy companies. Iberdrola and Pattern Energy hired him to write reports justifying their wind projects, Tule Wind in McCain Valley and the Ocotillo Express Wind Facility. Sempra Energy also hired Bittner as its eagle consultant for its massive Energia Sierra Juarez Wind in Baja California.
The sentencing memorandum reveals that Bittner had a long history of noncompliance with state and federal laws protecting birds of prey.
In 1979, the state of Ohio and the federal government revoked his bird banding permit after a conviction on several counts, yet he continued banding wild raptors after his permit was revoked. Bittner lied to probation officials about a lapsed permit, and in fact had no active federal permit to band birds from 1980-1997. It was reactivated in 1997 after Bittner filed an application from his new location in Ramona, California.
After the reauthorization, Bittner advised that he had retained nearly 2,500 bird bands, which are strictly regulated – but never accounted for his activities. Bittner later lost the permit again and has not had a valid permit since 2000 in California due partly to his failure to provide required data.
In 2011 he provided the state Department of Fish & Game with a report on nearly a thousand raptors including 200 Golden Eagles that he banded from 2000 to 2011—with no state permit. His federal permit expired in 2010 and was later renewed despite questions over 300-400 bands not accounted for. These included eagles in San Diego and Imperial County as well as Orange, Riverside, San Bernadino and Kern counties. Most of those eagles were also tagged and 44 were fitted with transmitters.
Bittner was also found to be using wild raptors in educational programs for the public at his Wildlife Research Institute facility in Ramona. He illegally trapped and marked 164 birds while his permits were lapsed in 2010, including 29 Golden Eagles in San Diego and Imperial County. He also illegally banded an injured bird and released it with multiple transmitters, a practice bird experts have said had no scientific justification. Witnesses said it had trouble flying; Bittner noted it was found dead later, apparently a victim of a wind turbine, but Bittner never provided flight data on the bird.
Most shocking, several witnesses reported a mortality rate of 90% for birds mounted with Bittner’s transmitters during one nine-month period. Yet Bittner reported only a 20% mortality rate during that nine month period in 2011.
He was also found to illegally have four freezers full of dead birds including 26 migratory birds, of which 11 were golden eagles, some dating back years. Dead eagles are required to be turned over to the federal government immediately so that feathers may be used by Native Americans for ceremonial purposes.
He also conducted a helicopter survey of eagle nests in Joshua Tree National Park even after being specifically denied a permit for use of a helicopter due to fears of disturbing the birds
He has never published any scientific papers on his survey findings. Nor has he turned over results to state or federal authorities, as he is required by law to do. Instead, his data has only been provided to his corporate clients.
As part of his probation terms, the federal government asked him to submit data on thousands of unreported bird bands issued to him, as well as telemetry data from transmitters, though the latter were not provided by the government. The government also required that Bittner return all bands still in his possession to the government and provide full accountability for them. Failure to do so could result in probation being revoked.
Bittner claimed he had no time to manage permits in eight states when questioned by federal authorities.
Before the sentencing Bittner’s lawyer, Gerissa Santos, argued that her client had been punished already. Due to the negative publicity generated by the case, he had lost clients, who paid for his services. She also argued that Bittner is set to retire, and wanted to protect the birds.
Santos also argued that all this has negatively affected the Wildlife Research Institute (WRI). She indicated the Institute might close in 2014 due to lack of operating funds.
Bittner's Wildlife Research Institute sent out a fundraising letter signed by Bittner, seeking funds for additional raptor research including eagles, without disclosing Bittner’s guilty plea. Among other things, the letter asks donors for support for education programs using illegally kept raptors and to "conduct Golden Eagle research to aid agencies in making sound scientific decisions regarding wind, solar, and other development projects."
Bittner’s lawyer closed by saying that “no harm has been done to any birds.” But that point was disputed by the prosecution.
“Birds were harmed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson argued at the sentencing hearing. She concluded that Bittner had been far more concerned about economic gain than the bird’s well being, Pierson concluded.
Bittner and his wife Leigh, have said they raised the money necessary to buy the Ramona Grasslands and sell the property to the Nature Conservancy. This is raptor habitat, including most recently, a reported nesting pair of bald eagles. Despite the evidence provided by the prosecutor, Bittner insisted that “everything we do is standard operating procedure.”
Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group and an officer with the Protect Our Communities Foundation, has asked for a review of the validity of Bittner’s studies of local wind projects, including Tule Wind, which has been approved by the federal government but has not yet been built.
“We support the Justice Department’s vigilance in prosecuting Bittner for his serious transgressions and unlawful behavior,” said Tisdale, who has long contended that there are eagles in areas slated for wind turbines, where Bittner claims there are none. ““When unethical and basically corrupt experts like Bittner side with industry over avian protection,” Tisdale concluded, “our beautiful birds literally get clobbered with the blunt end of the turbine blade.”