Golden research: Studies by museum staff to be highlighted in new exhibition

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With the opening of a new permanent exhibit just a month away, golden eagle education is heating up at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Ten years of research has led up to Monarch of the Skies: The Golden Eagle in Greater Yellowstone and the American West at the Draper Natural History Museum. Behind the Draper and the golden eagle research is Dr. Charles R. Preston, senior curator and founding curator of its raptor program.

Preston took a familiar position behind the podium to a packed house last week during the museum’s popular Lunchtime Expedition lecture series — now in its 19th year. His speech on the relationship between region eagles, the cottontail rabbit and other animals of prey was the second of three lectures leading up to the grand opening of Monarch of the Skies: The Golden Eagle in Greater Yellowstone and the American West on June 10.

Preston is passionate about raptors and especially golden eagles.

“I focus on raptors because they’re a great window to the world. No matter what ecosystem you’re studying, raptors are among the most obvious models to what is going on in the system,” he said.

Preston has spent nearly two decades concentrating his studies on the the sagebrush steppe.

“It’s one of those maligned places that people call a wasteland. If I had hair, it would stand up,” Preston told the audience. “This is no less a wilderness — an intact ecosystem — than the beautiful forests in the Rocky Mountains.”

It’s the most expansive ecosystem in the west, he said. And he’s worried the sagebrush sea is in danger. Recent decisions by the Department of the Interior to amend a multi-state collaborative for sage grouse conservation — an umbrella species to the entire environment — jeopardize the ecosystem, Preston said.

“We thought we had a great plan in place, and now it looks like we’ll be revisiting it. From ranchers and other landowners, to politicians and conservationists, to wildlife managers — all looking at the sagebrush system saying it is important. Even if the only reason they were looking at it [was] because of sage grouse and we don’t want them on the Endangered Species List,” he said. “Wyoming led that charge. I’m very proud of that.”

Golden eagles are attracted to the area’s prime nesting spots, created over millions of years in the sandstone cliffs of the Big Horn Basin, and lots of food sources. As part of the lead-up to the exhibition, March’s lecture series featured Gretchen Hurley, geologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Hurley looked back hundreds of millions of years — all the way back to plate tectonics — to help decipher why the basin is such a prime habitat for golden eagles. Its sandstone cliffs are home to more than 80 nesting sites.

“The golden eagles are raising young families in ancient deposits,” she said. “We are so lucky to live in the Big Horn Basin.”

Preston leads a group in researching golden eagles in the basin. For a decade, his team of scientists and volunteers have been studying all things golden — including nest sites, population trends, food sources, migration patterns and the art they inspire humans to create.

From surveillance by airplane to satellite transmitters attached to individual goldens, Preston’s team is hard at work. During the spring, the team captures and bands young goldens in their nest in an effort to study and conserve the species.

Preston and wildlife biologist Nathan Horton recently joined Susan Ahalt at Ironside Bird Rescue to band a golden prior to its release after months in the rescue rehabilitating from injuries sustained from being struck by a car. Banding the eagle will help scientists in future research, especially if the the eagle is ever injured again, Ahalt said.

During the process, the eagles are measured and tested, adding to the national database. The golden, which Ahalt named Lupus, was a huge female that came in with a broken leg.

Preston has banded many golden eagles moving through the rescue — something Ahalt calls of utmost importance.

“[Preston] is the only one doing research on goldens, maybe in the entire state,” she said.

The new exhibition will showcase the research by Preston’s staff.

“It’s a multidisciplinary exhibition. That’s what a top tier museum does. It will highlight the knowledge we created with our team,” Preston said.

The next lecture in the series happens just prior to the opening of the exhibition. Titled, “From Sagebrush Sea to Pacific Ocean: Golden Eagle Conservation in the Big Picture,” the lecture by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Western Golden Eagle Team leader Brian Woodbridge will be held on June 7.

The lectures series is free of charge, but get there early: The seats fill up fast.

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