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Prosecutor contends Bittner more concerned with economic gain than well-being of raptors;

Bittner data used to justify wind and other energy projects in San Diego/Imperial Counties, Mexico & elsewhere

By Nadin Abbott and Miriam Raftery

August 13, 2013 (San Diego)—U.S. Magistrate Judge David H. Bartick sentenced John David Bittner of Julian, president of the Wildlife Research Institute in Ramona,  to three years probation and a $7500 fine.  Bittner pled guilty  to 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.   The government could have imposed up to a $100,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence, but instead hope to induce Bittner to turn over years of missing data as a condition of probation.

"We support the Justice Dept’s vigilance in prosecuting Bittner for his serious transgressions and unlawful behavior,” said Donna Tisdale with the Protect Our Communities organization. ““When unethical and basically corrupt experts like Bittner side with industry over avian protection—our beautiful birds literally get clobbered with the blunt end of the turbine blade.”

But she suggested that the fine amounted to a slap on the wrist in light of the more than $600,000 that Bittner’s Wildlife Research Institute raked in through consulting fees for corporations. 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.

 “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—aka unscrupulous wind developers,” Tisdale contends. 

 The sentencing memorandum reveals that Bittner had a long history of noncompliance with state and federal laws protecting birds of prey—including one nine- month period when witnesses contend that 90% of eagles fitted with transmitters by Bittner died. 

 In 1979, the  state of Ohio and the federal government revoked his bird banding permit in that state following his conviction for taking wild turkey eggs, arrest for having wild turkey vultures and a Snow Owl without a permit, and failure to file banding reports required by law.  Yet he continued banding wild raptors after his permit was revoked. His permit status was later changed to inactive at Bittner’s request. 

Bittner lied to probation officials, the sentencing memorandum indicates, falsely stating that this case was the first time in 48 years that his permit had lapsed.  In fact he 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 the BL that he had retained nearly 2,500 bird bands, which are strictly regulated – but has 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—13 years ago.  

 In 2011 he provided the state Department of Fish & Game with a report on nearly a thousand raptors (936) including 200 Golden Eagles that he banded from 2000 to 2011—with no state permit issued, though the state did cash Bittner’s checks, oddly. 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 also illegally trapped and marked 164 birds while his permits were lapsed in 2010, including 29 Golden Eagles in San Diego and Imperial County, as well in 5 in Nevada while working on a wind project there—also without a Nevada state permit.   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, when experts said an 85% survival rate should have been expected.  Yet Bittner reported only a 20% mortality rate during that nine month period in 2011.

Bittner claimed he had no time to manage permits in eight states when questioned by federal authorities. 

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 requiredt 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 paying corporate clients. 

Now the federal government wants 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 extent of his probation will depend on Bittner fulfilling the terms of his probation. These also include the sharing of the raw data obtained from telemetry studies on  birds by Bittner with the Fish and Wildlife Service . Bittner has argued that this is intellectual property that cost him and the Wildlife Research Institute, and that sharing this material with the government will put the birds at risk by allowing the public to find eagle nests.

The government argued that this material was generated from equipment provided by the Federal Bird Banding Lab. The government also required that Bittner return all bands still in his possession to the government and provide full accountability for them.

Before the sentencing Bittner’s lawyer, Gerissa Santos, argued before Judge Bartick 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 added that the “joint recommendation for probation is sufficient to ensure payment of the fine.” She also said that the Federal banding permit has been revoked as of 2009, and there have been negative repercussions in the scientific community.

She objected to the sharing of the information requested with the Fish and Wildlife Service, since “it is just raw data.”

Santos also argued that all this has negatively affected the Wildlife Research Institute (WRI_. In her mind the Court should also consider the effect on the Institute, which might close in 2014 due to lack of operating funds.

Bittner's Wildlife Research Institute recently sent out a fundraising letter signed by Bittner, brazenly seeking funds for additional raptor research including eagles, without disclosing  Bittner’s guilty plea.  Among other things, the letter asks donors for support for its 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."

Santos 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, also noting that the damage to the Wildlife Research Institute did not come from the prosecution.

Pierson referred to the educational program in Ramona where Bittner used wild raptors, who “get stressed when exposed to large quantities of people.”

Moreover, “Bittner does not want to give the data to the government, that wants to protect the birds” even though the raw data is valuable information for Fish and Wildlife. On the other hand, he is willing to sell it to private parties.

He is far more concerned about economic gain than the bird’s well being, Pierson concluded.

Santos argued that the United States Forest Service contracted Bittner in 2007, and he sold Telemetry data to them in 2007. Some of this data ended up in the hands of mountain climbers and he is afraid for the safety of the birds. In the end there was an agreement to have access to this data only to proper federal agencies and not open it for a Freedom of Information request.

When Bittner addressed the Judge, he was clear that he was afraid that his legacy would be the end of the Wildlife Research Institute.

After the sentencing Bittner did answer questions from the press. He told ECM that “We submitted 600 more bands than they have on record.” All this happened over a 40 year period.

He said that all the government wanted was the raw data. He added that the time that his permit was laid dormant he was not in the business. According to him, “Agent Nichols has requested the data. This is about getting the data and the intellectual property.”

He, and his wife Leigh, added that 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.

He insisted that “everything we do is standard operating procedure.”

Since one of the reasons Bittner was sentenced today was because he did not have the proper federal or state banding permits, Tisdale added that “You have to have a permit to band, and data has to be provided to Fish and Wildlife, so they can protect the eagles.”

She added that in the last few weeks, a dead pelican was found near the Ocotillo Express Wind facility and a dead Turkey Buzzard at Sunrise Powerlink. “All these structures have an impact.”

She also added that Bittner’s research supported Tule Wind, Ocotillo Wind, and the Sempra facility in the Sierra Juarez in Baja California.

”Perhaps it is time to review all his material, and its validity,” she said, suggesting an ulterior motive behind his findings used to justify the wind projects.

Senior Special Agent Lisa Nicholls explained why the raw data is so important. This data tells the Service if a bird is just passing through, or staying put for a few hours, using a ridge for hunting for example. It helps to map the area and bird density.

This information is critical when permits are requested for development. The data tells the service, “where the eagles go and when they go.” This is critical information before permitting a wind turbine, for example.

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I am no fan of what Bittner has done. An ex-employee of Bittner's summed up their experience with one word: Disappointing. Although Mr. Wiegand, the employee stated that Bittner's counts and estimates for the county are pretty correct. Sometimes the general public will "discover" a nest that has been rumored to have previously been documented by Bittner. Hopefully that documentation is still around, and hopefully Bittner has supplied it to USFWS and CDFW. It's the least he can do since he took advantage of the general publics naivety of biological ethics and methods. Hopefully he supplied the information since urban encroachment and recreation impacting eagle foraging habitat and nesting areas in the county.

Eagle Expert Bittner

This man isn't an eagle expert, he is an eagle rip-off. As a person who has loved birds for a lifetime, I find it outrageous that such a person would be allowed to work with raptors, eagles, or any type of avian species, when he has failed repeatedly to do what is right by the birds and by federal regulations. How can this man be given a permit renewal when it is obvious that he is not acting in a professional manner with regard to our native wildlife. This kind of behavior which is destructive of our native species, deserves more than a slap on the wrist and a renewal of permits. It deserves some serious punitive action. Consider that if a person collected from the ground an eagle feather without a permit, that person would have a serious fine imposed. Consider a little girl on the East Coast area found a baby woodpecker and rescued it, and was fined $500. by authorities, until intervention prevailed to remove the fine. She had turned the bird over to rehab and did not take it for a pet, but simply tried to save it. Now, if people doing these things are getting the book thrown at them...it is outrageous that someone of Bittner's stripe is getting off so easy! No more permits for Bittner! He has done enough damage at this point.

slap on the wrist for Dave Bittner

This article about Dave Bittner’s conviction for unlawful taking of a Golden Eagle and failing to report data leaves me with a lot of questions. The article mentions numerous other offences such as the fact that he apparently had no active federal permit to band birds from 1980 to 1997, his use of wild raptors in educational programs in violation of the law, the 11 golden eagles found in his freezer, an illegal helicopter survey in a national park, his sale of data to corporate customers while failing to turn that data over to federal or state authorities. Given that Bittner probably was handsomely paid by wind power interests for his “research” supporting wind power projects (as is implied by the article) I would question whether that information was unbiased. How much money has Mr. Bittner taken in from well-meaning individuals in support of his research? The fine of $7,500 certainly seems minimal and might be referred to as chump change. Who are the chumps here? We are – the wildlife conservation community in general who ignored Mr. Bittner’s activities or avoided confronting him for fear of a law suit (for which Mr. Bittner is well known at least in Montana). How much is the data that the government wildlife agency hopes to get from Bittner’s Wildlife Research Institute worth? Given the dishonesty that Mr. Bittner has apparently demonstrated according to this article, I would have to question its accuracy or validity. It seems to me from what I read here that Dave Bittner has done a great deal of damage to the field of wildlife research by demonstrating how self interest can interfere with the validity or value of such research and that it can be a determent to wildlife populations when done incorrectly. Looking at the larger picture regarding wind power projects I have a big question about how companies can be allowed to select the “researchers” that evaluate the environmental impacts of a proposed project. Can we expect that an individual well-paid by the company will be totally unbiased in collecting and reporting information? We can hope, but there is likely to be some pressure. Would a better system be for the state or federal agency charged with the responsibility of evaluating environmental impacts of a project to hire and supervise the people collecting the information, sending the company involved a bill for the service? I’m sure it would. Doesn’t this seem obvious to anyone else?

Yes, companies should not pick consultants on their own projects

to evaluate its risks to wildlife, health, water supplies, and so forth. It's a no brainer that govt. should collect the fees and the regulatory agencies should pick who does this work. I've heard from some consultants off record that they are "paid to lie" as one whose conscience was bothering him told me recently. Someday maybe citizens will get fed up enough in our region to put an initiative on the ballot to stop this ripe-for-corruption practice.

Think about it.....

If research is conducted on an imaginary population, how could there be much data?

It's appalling to see someone

It's appalling to see someone like this whoring himself out to the politicians and businessmen behind these land raping, bird butchering wind farms. Good that he was fined but, as Donna Tisdale points out, it really is a misdemeanor conviction for something that should be a felony. And the double standard that will exempt wind farms for exactly the same kind of conscienceless carnage for the next thirty years is even more troubling.

What is an expert?

I keep seeing reference to Mr Bittner as being an expert on eagles. As many know I have been in great disagreement with some of the studies and population estimates Bittner/WRI have been involved with. Most notably population estimates for the golden eagles in San Diego County and several Western states. I see some of these population estimates to be exaggerated by over 10 times if the term "golden eagle territory" is construed in its most obvious context.  As I have stated before  most of these territories do not have a nesting or productive pair of golden eagles.  I will never consider Mr Bittner to be an expert.


What an eye-opening article!

Mr. Bittner's behavior is inexcusable.   He was entrusted with protecting our avian heritage and did not do so.

Poor birds!!!   :(