By Miriam Raftery
January 11, 2020 (Ramona) – John David "Dave" Bittner, 75, of Julian was known to many for the “Hawk Watch” programs he led for decades at the Wildlife Research Institute in Ramona that he founded, and later at the Begent Ranch. On Thursday, Bittner died of a 50-foot fall suffered while rappelling down to replace batteries and memory cards in a camera near a Golden Eagle nest in the Bandy Canyon area in the San Pasqual Valley.
“We will miss him dearly and are so thankful for his work and dedication to saving wildlife and their special habitat,” the Wildlife Research Institute posting on its Facebook page. The institute, of which Bittner served as director, pledged to continue hosting Hawk Watch and planned an impromptu memorial service this morning at the Begent Ranch.
Bittner and his wife,Leigh, had a passion for protecting wildlife and purchased 3,000 acres that they donated to the county to buy the Ramona Grasslands preserve and sell property to the Nature Conservancy as a wildlife preserve. That is home to many raptors, including bald eagles.
“His life was dedicated fully to his love of wildlife and wild places,” Katie Quint, who worked closely with Bittner, said, 10 News reported.
He was considered a top local expert on eagles, studying the nesting ecology locally of Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles for the past three decades. His Hawk Watch educational programs have also highlighted hawks, falcons and owls.
Bittner’s work included studies on eagle habitat commissioned by energy companies for major projects including Tule Wind in McCain Valley+, Ocotillo Wind and the Energia Sierra Juarez project in Mexico. Bittner’s work on those projects drew controversy in 2013, when he pled guilty to failing to file data reports on some banded birds and to unlawful taking of one Golden Eagle without a permit. He was sentenced to probation and a fine.
Bittner told ECM at the time that his permit was dormant for a period and that he submitted more bands than the government had on record. He objected to turning over location of eagle nests to the government, stating that he feared the public would learn the locations and encroach on threatened or endangered species.
On Thursday, Bittner called for help after his fall and a friend dialed 911. A Sheriff’s helicopter aided in extracting Bittner, who died at the scene. It is unclear what caused him to fall, but the Medical Examiner’s report indicated he had cardiac arrest as well as a head injury before his death. The nest he was documenting as active was among the first in his study of eagle nesting, according to the Wildlife Resarch Institute, and was recently threatened by potential trail development.
The Wildlife Research Institute has vowed to continue the Hawk Watch programs that educated the public on the majesty and importance of raptors, or birds of prey, “to keep his legacy shing on without hesitation.”
The Hawk Watch programs, which are free to the public, are available each Saturday in January and February at 10 a.m. To learn more about Hawk Watch or to donate to support the Wildlife Research Institute, visit https://www.wildlife-research.org/?fbclid=IwAR1pSadEwmEn9AH-Pw9rsSUgNAE1gieqVps6gEVBPQuyxdiSMG_vhQU4T8o.