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Ellie’s Eagles

A self-made naturalist is pulled into a battle between helicopters and her beloved raptors.


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At least three times a week, 64-year-old Ellie Ienatsch snowshoes up a side drainage of Big Cottonwood Canyon and observes the rituals of a pair of golden eagles. As she watches them soar, dive and call out, she can’t help but ponder the behaviors—both human and avian—that affect their well being. Indeed, her observations have drawn her reluctantly, steadily and inexorably into the battle between two birds: the soaring eagle and the roaring helicopter.

Known to some as “the bird lady,” the soft-spoken former first-grade teacher began observing golden eagles in 1982 while helping the Wasatch Mountain Club build a new trail to Kessler Peak in Big Cottonwood Canyon. “I was so darn tired building that trail, I started spending most of my time watching the eagles.”

The more Ienatsch watched, the more they intrigued her. She soon bought a viewing scope and began following the birds into the Cardiff, Silver, Days and Mineral Fork drainages. She has followed the raptors five days a week in summer and three days a week in winter ever since.

Soon after she began watching them, she saw an eagle land on a cliffside and then disappear. Looking closer, she realized she had pinpointed a nesting site, identifiable by the large, bowl-shaped pile of sticks and brush. In the ensuing years she located seven more sites, or aeries, belonging to the same pair of eagles. (Each pair of golden eagles chooses one of four or more active nesting sites for raising their young every spring. Eagles mate for life and typically live 15 years in the wild. ) Once she identified the sites, she began blazing trails to remote perches from which she could observe the eagles during nesting season.

She hesitates when asked how the eagles became such an obsession. “What is it about an eagle when somebody sees one? The tremendous freedom they have, I suppose. The independence and strength, the way they fly.”

Following Ienatsch to one of her observation sites isn’t easy. Her lanky body displays the angles of age, and she sometimes favors a sore knee. Yet she races across deep snow. Her experience shows: She uses her ski poles to swat snow off pine boughs in her path, probes around deadfall for hollow spots in the snow, and kicks her feet into the slope until her footholds are solid. Every so often she circles away from the main path and creates a false trail. These trails, she sheepishly explains, are meant to divert followers from inadvertently approaching the birds.

When she pauses to talk, she occasionally gazes skyward. Her expression rapt, her greenish eyes active, she watches the heavens with reverence. It hardly surprises you when she spies an eagle before you do. She points out its brown body against the gray-brown limestone cliffs. It glides past like stillness in motion, then disappears. She quickly spots its partner and points it out. The second eagle makes a barely audible yukking sound—a sign that courting may be in progress, says Ienatsch.

The second eagle trails the first one out of view without once flapping its wings. Ienatsch remarks that golden eagles are much larger than hawks—the wingspan of a mature golden eagle can reach seven feet, roughly twice that of a red-tailed hawk—and they fly more effortlessly than hawks do. Though their wings can seem motionless, the eagles use their feathers to subtly adapt to the air currents. “I think they move their primary feathers like fingers, making very small adjustments while flying,” she explains. “The movement is just imperceptible.” Ienatsch does not assert this as fact; rather, she shares it as if you were her partner in formulating new, exciting theories.

Through the years she has witnessed some of the best and worst occurrences in the lives of the eagles. Last spring she was thrilled when the two eagles in upper Big Cottonwood successfully nested for the first time in seven years. She watched the female and, occasionally, the male, as they incubated their two eggs. She saw the firstborn chick stretch and strengthen its wings. The second one died—an expected occurrence. She watched the surviving chick feed on part of a fawn, which the parents had somehow deposited in the nest. And she saw the mother eagle stand up in the aerie and spread its wings to shield her offspring from the hot, late-afternoon sun.

During one amazing afternoon, Ienatsch saw the mother teaching the eaglet to fly. At one point the mother demonstrated how to land on a dome-shaped rock. “The mother eagle landed smoothly, then it was the baby’s turn. It came down too fast, then flared its wings too late and had to grab for the rock from below. It grabbed on and had to pull itself up. Then it flapped its wings like it was embarrassed.” Ienatsch chuckles at the memory, her eyes crinkling with delight. In her journal that day, after the lessons had ended, she wrote, “The sun and the eagles have long since left this paradise in which I’m sitting. Life is absolutely complete. There is nothing else I need.”

Other sights troubled her. In 1992, the fledgling eagle crashed during its first and only attempt to fly. The mother stayed with the fledgling for days before finally leaving it to die in a hailstorm. An even worse moment came in March 1995, when she watched the female abandon its eggs while a Wasatch Powderbird Guides helicopter ferried skiers nearby. The first time the mother left the nest, it returned after a few hours; the second time, it abandoned it for good. “I knew the helicopter chased them away,” Ienatsch says. “It didn’t try to do it, but it did.”

Until that day, her experiences with the eagles had been personal. “I hate politicking,” she says. “I wanted the eagles to be my own thing. I had never told anyone about them.” Now she felt compelled to speak out. In a May 1995 op-ed piece for the Salt Lake Tribune, she portrayed the conflict between helicopter and raptor in dire terms. “The [eagle’s] enemy is another bird, it occupies the same air space … a huge featherless pterodactyl.” Later in the article, she said the Wasatch Powderbird Guides helicopter became a “killer” when operating after March 15, near the onset of nesting season.

At the public-input sessions where the special use permits for Wasatch Powderbird Guides were discussed, Ienatsch told how the helicopter had disturbed the eagles, and she wrote dozens of letters to people who might help the birds. Her input subtly altered the debate between heli-ski operators and environmentalists. Past discussions had gravitated to the aesthetics of backcountry skiing, the commodity known as untracked powder, and the right—or privilege—of a local company with a long history and a strong safety record to do business on busy public land. Then Ienatsch arrived and began talking about, of all things, birds.

She drew support from the environmentalist organization Save Our Canyons, which promptly named her its wildlife coordinator. Gale Dick, president of Save Our Canyons, says Ienatsch played a vital role for the group after 1995. “She was enormously helpful because she’s so knowledgeable. She’s spent a large part of her life observing golden eagles. I don’t think she feels strongly about helicopters as such, but she saw a real wildlife management problem. It was clear that the U.S. Forest Service was impressed with her because she speaks so well.”

When presented with evidence that the eagles were being disturbed, the Forest Service had little choice but to act. The agency bears responsibility for upholding the Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits the “taking”—this can mean any significant molestation or disturbance—of bald or golden eagles. Still, Ienatsch was a bit surprised that the Forest Service took her seriously. “I was absolutely alone the whole time I watched the eagles. All I did was watch. I take no pictures. I don’t know why anybody listened at all.”

In 1997, the U.S. Forest Service took steps to protect the eagles and to appease environmentalists. It required Wasatch Powderbird Guides to observe half-mile buffer zones around nesting sites—areas identified by Ienatsch—during February, March and April. When it renewed the special use permit for Wasatch Powderbird Guides last year, the Forest Service banned heli-ski flights in the Tri-Canyon area of Big Cottonwood, Little Cottonwood and Millcreek canyons on Sundays and Mondays. The Forest Service also asked Wasatch Powderbird Guides to install video or global-positioning systems capable of recording the routes taken by its helicopters; and to pay $5,000 annually for the observation of the eagles and other sensitive species in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

As with most decisions involving heli-skiing in the Wasatch Mountains, neither Wasatch Powder Guides nor Save Our Canyons was satisfied with the outcome. Rusty Dassing, one of the employee-owners of Wasatch Powderbird Guides, says the Sunday-Monday flight restriction has hurt his company, especially when unsafe or unsatisfactory snow conditions preclude flights outside the central Wasatch. He also questions whether their helicopters ever disturbed the eagles in the first place. “We’ve been flying here 28 years and haven’t bothered anything,” says Dassing. “If we’d bothered the eagles they wouldn’t be here.”

Although she objects to several of the current regulations, Ienatsch is particularly disturbed by the site-specific variances—areas where Wasatch Powderbird Guides helicopters are allowed to cross the buffer zones. These variances are designed to protect the helicopter passengers and pilot. Ienatsch argues that the variances sharply reduce the effectiveness of the buffers.

In the backcountry, she writes journal entries that are equal parts science, poetry and philosophy, most of it eagle-inspired, such as this one: Human worries are often such a waste of energy. I am looking now at the most beautiful golden eagle. The head and neck are completely covered with elegant tawny feathers that give the golden its name. The baby eagle is now an adult, exceptionally dark for a young eagle, exceptionally large. She is ready to fly. I recognize that truth and try to accept the beauty of it as I close my eyes and swallow hard.

Though the entries hardly qualify as pure science, Richard Williams, a wildlife biologist for Wasatch Cache National Forest, considers them important. Williams keeps all of Ienatsch’s journals on file and has read every word. “It’s good observation,” he says. “When she observes the eagles we don’t think she’s inflating what she’s saying. I do know she’s part of a group that has an agenda, but she’s a very good observer.”

Outside of her journals, little data of any kind illuminates the eagle/helicopter encounters in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Before establishing the half-mile buffer zones, the Forest Service consulted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service, in turn, based its raptor guidelines on research involving bald eagles—“and there wasn’t even much data there,” says Laura Romin, who helped write the guidelines. The agency had no data on how well any eagles—bald or golden—tolerate prolonged noise from low-flying aircraft. Romin calls the half-mile buffer zones “our best judgment call on how to provide appropriate protection.”

Ienatsch believes a variety of factors helped the eagles successfully nest last spring—among them, the Sunday-Monday flight ban and an abundance of stormy late-winter weather, which may have grounded the Wasatch Powderbird Guides helicopters at key times during the courting and nesting periods. Without stormy weather again this March, she believes the eagles may not nest.

Williams, the wildlife biologist, says it’s impossible to pinpoint why the eagles nested. “I won’t be brazen enough to say they nested because of what [the Forest Service] did. It may have happened in spite of what we did. We really don’t know why the eagles do what they do. And there are other concerns [besides helicopters]. There are concerns about the number of people—skiers and snowshoers—in the area. We really don’t know.”

If the eagles in Big Cottonwood Canyon are indeed sensitive to noise from aircraft and motorized vehicles, they may feel the effects of an upcoming Forest Service decision. Though Wasatch Powderbird Guides holds a special use permit through 2004, Save Our Canyons recently asked the Forest Service to designate the Tri-Canyon area a special interest area in which all off-road motorized recreation, including helicopter skiing, would be banned. Save Our Canyons also called for possible limits on non-motorized recreation in the area.

The Wasatch-Cache National Forest will consider these and other suggestions in the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of its new Forest Plan Revisions. After the draft EIS is released in May, another round of public input will begin, with Ienatsch likely taking part. The forest will almost certainly try to broker a compromise between groups like Save Our Canyons and others favoring fewer—or no—limits on the use of the canyons. But with a new administration in Washington, the compromise seems less likely to satisfy Save Our Canyons.

As for the existing regulations, Wasatch Powderbird Guides has not yet installed the new global positioning or video systems, so no one except Wasatch Powderbird Guides knows for certain whether the helicopters have stayed out of the buffer zones. The eagle-monitoring program, which is in place, includes one observer who was hand-picked by Wasatch Powderbird Guides (with Forest Service approval). Although these two developments don’t necessarily bode ill for the eagles, Ienatsch still worries about them. “I’m afraid that we’re going to go backwards,” she says. “And, to be honest, I’m getting tired of the politics.”

She would rather watch raptors and spend time alone in the backcountry, an experience she compares to the T’ai Chi classes she teaches. “T’ai Chi is deep breathing, slow circular movement and a relaxed mind,” she explains. “The climbing is the slow circular movement. How can you be in the backcountry and not have a relaxed mind? And the deep breathing happens naturally.”

But during this trip to the backcountry, her attention is diverted. After reaching a favorite observation site, she settles comfortably on a foam cushion in the snow and prepares for an afternoon watching the eagles. A helicopter soon crests a nearby ridgeline and begins shuttling skiers on the mountainside behind her. The sound of its rotors rumbles off the cliffs above, varying in tone and intensity without ceasing. When the echoes become especially loud, she stops writing in her journal, shifts and cranes her neck to ascertain the copter’s location. As she does, she resembles a nesting animal, disturbed by noise. The eagles have long since disappeared.

After several hours the helicopter finally leaves the canyon. In silence at last, Ienatsch remains seated, seemingly comfortable on her cushion on the snow. She drains the last of a can of Natural Light beer and nibbles on sunflower seeds—a combination she describes as “ambrosia.” With the air cooling rapidly, she writes final notes in her journal, then scans the cliffs one last time for the eagles. It is almost time for her to go, and high time for the eagles to nest.