Speaker Series: HawkWatch International

Speaker Series: HawkWatch International

  • Posted by Kaleigh
  • On February 2, 2018
  • Comments

Wildlife advocate Eric Chabot is formally inviting you to join him this Thursday for the next edition of our Winter Speaker Series. If Eric looks familiar to you, it's probably because you've seen him recreating around our gym. He’s been a member at The Front for almost 6 years! If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, let us give you a quick intro...

Eric has dedicated his life to wildlife preservation and spends his days toiling at HawkWatch International, a non-profit that works to preserve and protect raptors and the environments they live in. We weren’t surprised to hear that Eric was on a bouldering trip when he decided to go all-in with his outdoor obsession and become a wildlife advocate. 10 years down the road and he's still going strong with his commitment. Monitoring nests in his field comes with many unique challenges—turns out raptors don’t make a habit of nesting on convenient cliffsides. However, when they do find a spot that's easily accessible to climbers, it can become a big problem for the raptor's wellbeing. Eric’s presentation will offer insight into balancing our outdoor pursuits while minimizing the risk of disturbing the native wildlife. A pair of raptor ambassadors will accompany him, making this an event you don’t want to miss!

In an eggshell, tell us about HawkWatch and why it’s important: 
The mission of HawkWatch International is to conserve our environment through education, long-term monitoring, and scientific research on raptors. Raptors, in addition to being incredibly cool, are an ecosystem indicator species, which means they depend on ecologically functional habitats that can support them and their prey. By studying birds of prey, we are studying the overall health of the natural environment where they live.

What species of birds do you tend to work with?
Most of my work is with Golden Eagles (Aquila Chrysaetos). They are magnificent and crafty, as well as being fast and acrobatic flyers. They favor open, undisturbed landscapes where they can find jackrabbits to eat and nest on exposed cliff habitats. Unfortunately, the species is declining broadly across the west, though it is not yet considered endangered.

As it relates to the presentation I will be giving at The Front this week, we are interested in all cliff-nesting raptor species present in Utah, including the Golden Eagle, Red-Tailed Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Prairie Falcon, and Great-Horned Owl. All of these species are present at climbing areas in Utah and have the potential for their reproduction to be disturbed if we choose to climb in certain areas. Although some of these species have healthy populations, I believe that many in the climbing community would not intentionally choose to disturb a nesting bird if they knew how to avoid it. Towards that goal, I want to share my knowledge and understanding of raptor nesting ecology with my community of climbers. Partnering with the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance has been instrumental in working towards that.

How long have you been working in wildlife study & conversation/education?
I have been in the natural resources field off and on since 2008. I've worked with fish, invasive plant species, and birds of prey.

We all think what you do is incredibly admirable. When did you decide to become an environmental activist?
I decided to pursue an environmental career while on a bouldering trip in Rocktown, GA. I was about to graduate from college and decided it would be a way to work towards goals I believed in while having the opportunity to spend time in natural environments. I worked temporary and seasonal field jobs in natural resources until I ended up with HawkWatch. After a season, our organization needed technical climbing support for a transmitter study of Golden Eagle nestlings in the west desert, which I was excited to help with! Over time, I did whatever I could to make myself useful to the organization including volunteer work, and as my skills grew, a seasonal position turned into a permanent one. I also enjoyed living in Salt Lake City and having the opportunity to combine my interest in climbing with my interest in raptor conservation in a place with such great recreational access.

What are the greatest challenges facing wildlife conservation?
Increasing human populations and natural resource consumption impacting wildlife habitat is a very important issue, and will continue to increase both globally and locally, with the population along the Wasatch Front expected to double within a short period of time.

Invasive species are also seriously changing plant communities around the world. Both of these factors lead to the degradation and shrinkage of available habitats, and thus declining populations.

In your words, why should someone care about our wildlife?
We share the natural world with other plants and living creatures. Although I realize that not everyone shares these values, I believe that all life inherently deserves respect, and we should consider other living creatures' right to exist when we decide how to interact with natural environments.

Watching a raptor soar at a climbing area is beautiful and enhances your experience as a climber. The feeling of being in wild, natural surroundings is one of the things that attracted many of us to climbing in the first place, and wildlife is part of that. When we intentionally or unintentionally tame the wilds, we are changing the experience that all current and future climbers will have when they visit a wild landscape.

How can your average Joe help?
To help raptor conservation in general and support our work, people can join HawkWatch! We are a membership-based organization, and there is information about becoming a member on our website, as well as other volunteer opportunities.

When it comes to raptor nest conservation in the Wasatch, climbers can volunteer to help monitor raptor nests at our climbing areas. I am looking for folks to help monitor nests at the Poptire Cave, Pequop Summit, Ibex, Rock Canyon, Maple Canyon, Log Canyon, Echo, the Blob crags, and other locations. By monitoring these crags and nests during the spring nesting season, we can verify if they are occupied and let climbers know which routes or areas to avoid if they want to keep from possibly disturbing a nesting bird.

If we can verify that these territories are successfully producing chicks, we can avoid area closures and enhance our relationship with land managers as a climbing community. This could be a win for both conservation and access. This is a developing partnership between SLCA, HawkWatch, and land managers at some climbing areas, so contacting HawkWatch if you see a raptor showing nesting behavior while you are out climbing can help us identify more areas where we can get the word out about nesting activity.

For more information, come to my talk at The Front on February 8th and follow the SLCA on social media! SLCA posts the information that we gather about which nests are active at which areas, and advisories on which routes to avoid. We will also be posting information on route and area pages on Mountain Project.

What are the other organizations doing important work in your field?
We partner with government agencies such as the BLM and US Forest Service, as well as the US Fish and Wildlife Service. One significant partner that has supported much of our work in Utah is the Department of Defense, who are concerned about the environmental impacts of the training activities that take place on Utah military lands. Other organizations that support raptor conservation are the Peregrine Fund, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and the Idaho Bird Observatory.

What are some of the techniques and challenges you face when it comes to accessing nesting areas. Do you do much climbing in your profession?
Climbing for HawkWatch has more in common with canyoneering or professional rope access than recreational climbing. The biggest challenge is the choss-wrangling—Golden Eagles select nest sites based on the availability of prey nearby and the shelter provided by a ledge or an overhang, and don't care about rock quality. In addition to the loose rock, we are almost always in very remote environments where self-rescue would be the only timely option in case of an accident. Because of these factors, I like to rappel protected by two independent static ropes. I attach to one with my rappel device, and the other with a mobile fall-arrest pulley made by Petzl for rope access work. Although some climbers might see this as overkill, the safety margin I accept in my work is different from the safety margin I am willing to accept in recreational climbing.

There is also the challenge of dealing with an angry bird in the nest! We do everything we can to ensure the safety of the organisms we study and make sure not to harm the young birds when we access their nests to tag them.

Personally, I enjoy all aspects and disciplines of climbing (except ice and high alpine). I climb in the gym, boulder, sport climb, trad climb, and also climb multi pitch and alpine rock routes. My favorite area to climb is the New River Gorge in West Virginia!

What brought you to The Front? And why did you stay?
I came to the Front because I enjoyed the friendly community atmosphere I found there. After the new expansion opened up how could anyone leave? The training and climbing facilities are top notch.

Why is training the body and mind important to you?
I enjoy physical training because it allows me to monitor my progression in a concrete way rather than just climbing the same old routes when I am in the gym. Breaking through plateaus has allowed me to climb on better routes when I go climbing outdoors and to visit more areas. Training my mind at The Front is super fun—the tall walls in the lead area have helped me gain confidence taking big whips and understanding when it will be safe to do so when climbing outdoors.

What will you be speaking about in our Speaker Series?
I will speak about the cliff-nesting raptor ecology, how to identify the different species of cliff-nesting raptor that are found in Utah, and the issues around nest disturbance. I will also speak about the legal protections nesting raptors receive, and the partnership between the SLCA and HawkWatch. I will be happy to answer questions about nesting raptors, climbing access issues, and our work to the best of my ability! We will also have a couple of live raptor ambassadors present for climbers to see up close.

« RSVP to HawkWatch's presentation on Facebook!