In Wyoming, a Statewide Relay Race to Rescue Golden Eagles

With only three raptor rehab centers, the state relies on a network of dedicated volunteers to shuttle injured eagles, hawks, and owls for treatment.

In October, Nathan Barnes was just sitting down to lunch when his phone rang: a volunteer with the local raptor rescue was on the line, reporting that a Golden Eagle was in trouble about 140 miles south of where he sat in Lander, Wyoming.

Barnes leapt into action. As the founder and executive director of Wind River Raptors, the local rehab center for birds of prey, he has devoted his life to saving birds. He and his dining companion ran to her blue Dodge Ram and set off toward the last known sighting of the injured bird. “You never know when you go out on a phone call what you’re going to find or what’s going to be there,” he says.

What they found was the weak eagle in a large dog crate, thanks to first responders from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The eagle had traumatic head injuries, likely from a vehicle strike, and infected eyes. When Barnes saw the bird’s bright green feces, he suspected it had another concerning problem: lead poisoning, probably from scavenging animal carcasses riddled with lead ammunition. A blood test confirmed his fears. At 62.2 µg/dL, the eagle had "the highest lead level I’ve ever seen on a bird that was still alive,” Barnes says.

To have a chance at survival, the eagle needed around-the-clock care and specialized treatment—treatment it couldn’t get in Lander at the time. Barnes called Carrie Ann Adams at Teton Raptor Center, a larger facility with more resources to treat such a sick bird located in Wilson, Wyoming. They knew that they had to transport the eagle there as soon as possible. But it was nearly 200 miles away, farther than Barnes could travel that day.

So Adams activated Wyoming’s Golden Eagle Rescue Network, a group of volunteer raptor enthusiasts who transport injured raptors around the state to get them the care and rehabilitation they need to survive. The network, first set up last year, was originally designed to help Golden Eagles, but it’s also equipped to help other raptors, including Great Horned Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and Bald Eagles.

The network is necessary because, with the lowest population density in the lower 48 states, Wyoming is home to just three raptor rehabilitation centers: Wind River Raptors in Lander, Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, and Ironside Bird Rescue in Cody—all located in the northwest quadrant of the state. (Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in Fort Collins, Colorado, not far from the state line, also helps treat Wyoming birds.)

The state’s long uninhabited expanses and notoriously fickle weather—complete with high winds, blizzards, icy roads, and mountain passes—make transporting birds a challenge. In winter, driving between Wilson and Cody is a treacherous 600-mile round-trip drive. When roads through Yellowstone National Park are open seasonally, the drive can be shorter, though tourist traffic can make the going slow.

Before the volunteer network was formed, finding people to ferry the raptors to and from treatment centers required a juggling act of phone calls and urgent emails. But now, over 60 trained volunteers are at the ready throughout the state, which allows for quicker transport since volunteers are likely to be closer to an injured bird. “Previously, it would take us most of the day or overnight to find volunteer transporters,” Adams says. “Most injured raptors now make it to a rehabilitation center within hours of being found."

On that mid-October day, she examined the Golden Eagle Rescue Network list of pre-approved bird drivers to find who was closest to the eagle. It was Carolyn Orr, a former search-and-rescue canine handler from Lander, who had signed up for the network the previous day. After she got Adams' call, Orr collected the bird from Barnes and carefully drove it the 75 miles to Dubois, turning down the radio to keep the car quiet and keeping the temperature at 60-70°F for the bird's sake. “It was humbling to be that close to this magnificent raptor,” Orr says.

When she pulled into a parking lot in Dubois—the chosen location to hand the bird off to the next network member—she saw volunteer Ty Cook drive up in a Teton Raptor Center van. Cook, who works as a project manager for TKG Construction in Jackson, volunteers at Teton Raptor Center every week, where he feeds birds, assists with medical care, and cleans the facilities. After transferring the bird from Orr’s vehicle to the van, Cook began the drive back to Wilson—another 93 miles.

“The bird was very subdued at that point,” Cook says. “It definitely looked like a sick animal. It barely even acknowledged my existence when I opened the cage.”

Since its first transport in September 2016, the Golden Eagle Network has rescued 13 birds: five remain in treatment, six were humanely euthanized, and two succumbed to their injuries. The Golden Eagle from Lander remains on the “in treatment” list and is making a slow, steady recovery. 

After being  treated at Teton Raptor Center, the eagle was transported in early January back to Wind River Raptors, which is now better equipped for long-term bird care. The bird's lead levels have dropped, its vision is restored in one eye, and it is currently rebuilding the strength to fly long distances. If it can pass a suite of survival tests, it might soon be released back into the wild to travel across Wyoming—this time powered by its own two wings, rather than four wheels.