Our research team and dedicated conservation volunteers spend countless hours skiing and hiking through the southern Yellowstone wilderness, prairies of Montana, and sagebrush communities of western Wyoming studying some of the most elusive and difficult to study, as well as some of our more common raptor species. Our team not only uses the latest technologies to study these animals, like satellite and cell phone network GPS transmitters, we also create our own tools when the technology hasn't caught up yet for wildlife studies. We focus on collaborations with many state and federal agency biologists, local county and town agencies, other non-profits, and our dedicated team of volunteers to ensure long-standing conservation for raptors.
Video by Moosejaw Bravo Photography
The Teton Raptor Center research team is conducting several multi-faceted studies of raptor ecology, including passive acoustic monitoring of owls and forest raptors, migration pathways and corridors for long-distance migrants like Golden Eagles and Rough-legged Hawks, population genetics of Great Gray Owls and Bald Eagles, and detailed population monitoring of species like Great Gray Owls, Flammulated Owls and Northern Goshawks. Because raptor populations are so dependent on their prey, we also have several projects investigating key prey species, like Greater Sage-grouse, songbird communities, and pocket gophers.
The Great Gray Owl is one of the least-studied raptors in the US, and in 2013, we initiated one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted on this species. In 2016, we began installing automatic sound recorders in known Great Gray Owl territories as part of a pilot study to determine whether using these recorders is a viable method for surveying for forest owls. We also began investigating how snow conditions effect Great Gray Owl prey availability, winter range and productivity. As part of our ongoing nest-monitoring and banding efforts, in 2016 we observed 24 chicks successfully fledge from 15 active nests around Jackson Hole. We banded 17 of these chicks to better understand juvenile seasonal movements, mortality, and dispersal, and so far, we have banded 96 Great Gray Owls total in the Valley since 2013!
Following the admittance of a 34-year-old Bald Eagle, the third-oldest wild Bald Eagle ever documented, to the TRC rehab clinic in March of 2016, staff members began to wonder the extent to which she influenced the overall Bald Eagle population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) through her progeny over the years. This remarkable eagle inspired a more comprehensive research project assessing the gene flow and contribution of individual birds within the GYE’s Bald Eagle population. In 2016, we began collecting DNA samples from breeding Bald Eagles and their chicks in the Jackson area. We will combine these samples with DNA collected from known breeding Bald Eagles from the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to collaborator Michael Whitfield. With the help of our collaborators at Oklahoma State University, our team will assess and better understand genetically how the Bald Eagle population has expanded within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
In 2015, TRC began overseeing bird-banding stations that are part of the national Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program that seeks to understand more about the demographics of passerines (songbirds) and near passerines (woodpeckers, doves, and hummingbirds). TRC is directing two bird-banding stations, including one of the longest-running in the country: the station in Kelly began in 1990, and the one in Jackson has been operating since 2002. This sort of long-term data is critical to conserving bird populations. The 2016 season was very successful, with 696 total captures including 176 recaptures (which provide us the most important data). We banded 43 species in the 2015 season, with Yellow Warblers being our most frequently captured species. The 2017 banding season is underway and will be running until mid-August.
Prior to 2016, no breeding Flammulated Owl had ever been located in Teton County, but several injured Flammulated Owls were admitted to TRC for rehabilitation and one fledgling was photographed in the Hoback area in 2013. In the spring of 2016, with the support of Teton Conservation District, TRC initiated Flammulated Owl surveys to determine whether breeding individuals are present in northwest Wyoming. After conducting nighttime callback surveys at 160 locations in Jackson Hole from May-June, we recorded 18 detections of Flammulated Owls and located 14 potential nesting territories! We hope to build on this initial census to document nest sites and productivity and to better define habitat associations for Flammulated Owls in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Keep an eye out for these elusive, small owls in the Jackson area!
This summer, Teton Raptor Center initiated a focused study on Northern Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) in Teton County with the support of Teton Conservation District. The Northern Goshawk is a large, forest raptor that is known to breed in some areas of Wyoming, including Teton County. Wyoming Game and Fish Department has ranked its Native Species Status as "Unknown" based on a lack of population data. Overall, Northern Goshawks have been designated as a Tier I (highest priority) Species of Greatest Conservation Need, based on their known sensitivity to limiting factors such as habitat deterioration, human activity, genetics, and invasive species. However, understanding this sensitive species is greatly hampered by the ability to locate nest sites in the remote, rugged forests in which this raptor resides. Our field team is helping to expand our knowledge of this forest hawk and they have confirmed twelve territories in Teton County, Wyoming.
Beginning in 2014, we deployed GPS transmitters on Greater Sage-Grouse to investigate their habitat use, migration routes, and wintering areas in the Upper Hoback and Upper Green River drainages. Thus far, we have located two previously unknown leks within our study area, and the majority of our marked individuals migrated to winter ranges on the Mesa and surrounding areas near Pinedale, WY. We are also collaborating with biologists at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Pinedale Field Office who are investigating Greater Sage-Grouse geophagy, or the act of eating soil, while on winter range near Pinedale. It remains unknown why and how this relates to the health and survival of grouse in the winter and a next step in this project is to look more closely at the chemical and nutritional benefits of this soil to better understand how it relates to Greater Sage-Grouse biology.
In Spring/Summer 2017, we traveled to Thunder Basin National Grassland (TBNG) in eastern Wyoming to take feather and blood samples from nestling Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks. Because of several management objectives, the TBNG has been closed to prairie dog shooting for over ten years. In 2017, TBNG temporarily lifted hunting restrictions. Eagles and hawks in Thunder Basin are scavenging prairie dogs shot with lead bullets, and we are studying how ingesting lead fragments in these carcasses impacts nestling Golden Eagles. We are sending the samples to our collaborators to determine how much lead the young raptors absorb and if it is the same type of lead found in bullets.
Greater Sage-grouse are known to utilize the sagebrush flats within Spread Creek in Grand Teton National Park for lekking and nesting, and this area is adjacent to an active gravel extraction facility. Because Greater Sage-grouse have been shown to be negatively affected by noise and disturbance, we are studying the potential effects of gravel extraction operations on grouse movements and demography in this area in collaboration with Grand Teton National Park. By outfitting Greater Sage-grouse in this area with GPS transmitters, we will analyze movements, habitat use, and nesting demography of grouse to investigate any potential differences between years of low and high levels of pit operations.
Understanding the movements and migration paths of animals is essential in order to develop adequate conservation plans. This project aims to document the migration routes and important stop-over areas of Rough-Legged Hawks that winter in Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding areas. This is a collaborative project between TRC, Grand Teton National Park and Kidd Biological. By outfitting Rough-legged Hawks in western Wyoming with transmitters, we will track this species' movements as it migrates north to the arctic and sub-arctic regions where it breeds.
Since 2011, our team has been investigating several aspects of Golden Eagle ecology due to conservation concerns about declining eagle populations and increased risks, such as energy development and habitat loss. We have been tracking movements of Golden Eagles while on migration in collaboration with Raptor View Research Institute, winter ecology with MT BLM biologists, and annual movements of sub-adult Golden Eagles with USFWS. We are also working with the Western Golden Eagle team to expand tracking efforts in Montana and create a conservation strategy for Golden Eagles in eastern Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.