As it stands today, Nevada is one of three states, including North Dakota and Hawaii, that does not allow the use of golden eagles in falconry. Senate Bill 125 would incorporate golden eagles into the state of Nevada’s falconry regulation. Advocates for the bill say the introduction of golden eagles to falconry would create opportunities for the falconer community to support rehabilitation efforts for these birds of prey in the Silver State.
“Nevada State law has a ban on the possession of golden eagles and it puts a hamper on veterinarians trying to place injured golden eagles in the hands of falconers to give them a chance to be re-released [into the wild],” Corey Dalton, a licensed Master Falconer in northern Nevada, said. “If they can’t find any place to put these golden eagles with rehabbers, then they get euthanized.”
Dalton likens the opportunity for falconers to support rehabilitation efforts of injured golden eagles to the storyline of the peregrine falcon. The peregrine falcon was listed as endangered in 1970. The dramatic population rebound and subsequent de-listing of the peregrine falcon in 1999 is regarded as a landmark success for the Endangered Species Act.
“The falconry community has always been about wildlife assistance, conservation and recovery because it was actually falconry breeders that saved the peregrine falcon,” Dalton said. “They were breeding the peregrines in captivity and working with the federal government to release them back into the wild. So we want to do that with golden eagles because one of the main golden eagle placement veterinarians is Dr. Vicki Joseph in Roseville, CA, but she can’t find enough licensed falconers to send golden eagles to and from rehabilitation.”
In states where golden eagle falconry is legal, there are two methods through which a falconer can acquire a golden eagle: placement by a veterinarian of a bird in need of rehabilitation and trapping of birds in designated depredation areas. The likes of a rancher or sheep farmer can apply for a depredation area designation if the presence of golden eagles is affecting their livestock. However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service only allocates six depredation area tags to falconers across the United States each year.
“Some of these wind farms have actually gotten golden eagle depredation permits to where if their props hit an eagle and kill it, they don’t have to pay the fine, it just falls under their quota of bird strikes,” Dalton said. “So the falconry community for a long time has been trying to allow falconers to go to these wind farms to see if we can trap out some of the golden eagles and either re-locate them or even use them for falconry.”
Falconry is considered a heritage sport that’s been around for thousands of years in which birds of prey are used to hunt animals like waterfowl, ducks, quail and jackrabbits, among others.
“People have been hunting with birds of prey long before any other modern methods of hunting and it’s more rewarding as a natural process because you’re not interfering, you just watch,” Dalton said. “You’re not using modern technology like rifles, shotguns or archery, you’re just around a bird of prey when it chases its prey in a natural environment.”
In order to become a falconer, one must obtain a standard hunting license, as well as a falconry license. A three-step, multi-year process exists before someone can reach the Master Falconer status.
“There are three licensed classifications for falconry: an Apprentice license, in which they’re only allowed to have one bird in their possession at a time and limited in some states to a Red-tailed Hawk or a Kestrel Hawk [species],” Dalton said. “The second classification is a General Falconer and they can have any species of bird that their state allows, up to two or three birds depending on the state. The last classification is the Master Falconer, who can have any number of birds that their local wildlife agency deems that they’re able to fly.”
According to Dalton, who’s been a falconer for the past fifteen years, the bond between falconers and their birds is unique compared to other human-animal relationships. Falconers use their birds for six months out of the year, during the September-February hunting season. For the rest of the year, the birds are required to be in a facility properly suited for them for breeding and training in the offseason.
“For many falconers, [birds of prey] are one of their tools for hunting and it’s not necessarily an emotional bond for them so much as it is they just enjoy being out, practicing falconry,” said Dalton. “You find an area that is full of game and you release the bird to flesh [game] out. The birds are completely unattached to you, they’re completely free to fly off and may even be at risk of being killed or chased off by another predator.”
The most commonly used hawks for falconry include the Red-tailed Hawk, Harris’s Hawk and goshawks. Falcons commonly used for the sport include peregrines, Merlin’s and gyrfalcons. According to Dalton, these birds of prey have an 80 percent mortality rate during their first winter after hatching. Consequently, the tradition of apprenticeship licensing has supported the efforts of making sure young birds survive their first winter.
“The tradition of an apprenticeship is to trap a bird in one season, train it for falconry and in the late spring when the hunting season is over, release that bird back out to the wild,” Dalton said. “That way you’ve got [the bird] past that 80 percent threshold of dying in the winter and you taught it how to hunt.
“In the second year, the apprentice goes out and does it again and now they’ve really done their part in contributing to the local breeding population. So it’s a pretty traditional process as far as apprenticeships go with ensuring that we’re doing our part to keep birds available within the community.”
Additionally, falconers can not only be a resource for ensuring young birds survive their first winter, but enable them to live longer as well.
“Birds live longer in the hands of falconers because they get fantastic healthcare and high-quality, disease-free food,” said Dalton. “They still fly and hunt and chase and soar and live a normal bird of prey life. But when they’re in [a falconer’s] hands, they live almost twice as long.”
Therefore, Dalton stresses the value in incorporating golden eagles into the licensing for falconers, particularly if the United States wants its golden eagle population to thrive.
“The main factor in allowing golden eagles for falconry in Nevada is going to be our ability to help golden eagles that need to be rehabilitated and re-released back to the wild,” Dalton said. “They need to be flown, re-exercised and trained and falconers are the best-suited to do that because all that falconers do is fly birds. [SB125] would allow us to have birds brought to us from any state that needs assistance, so they’re not euthanized.”
From initial recovery to re-release, the rehabilitation process for injured birds via falconry, such as golden eagles, is a very involved process from a number of entities.
“If a golden eagle is capable of healing from an injury, then the bird gets assigned to a licensed Falconer who has an eagle endorsement,” Dalton said. “Then a falconer will work with the vet to get the bird hunting and make sure it can stay up in the air while it’s flying. Once the bird has been deemed releasable, the US Fish and Wildlife Service would tell you where that bird could or should be released, so it’s a pretty large commitment.”
It’s a large commitment that falconers such as Dalton are ready to undertake, pending the passage of SB125.
“Nevada is perfect with its open-space terrain for falconers to actually be able to assist in these golden eagle re-release programs,” Dalton said. “There’s a misconception that the birds aren’t free to fly, when falconry is actually releasing birds of prey to hunt and we’re helping them [hunt]. The golden eagle is such an amazing bird, and [falconers] want them to be part of their job, with respect to the sport of falconry and the animals involved as well.”
Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work.