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Tall nest structures should help hawks

Vernal — It's tough being a ferruginous hawk in the Uinta Basin.

Ferruginous hawks on a nest structure

A female hawk shelters her chicks in a nest built on a rock pinnacle in the Uinta Basin.

Photo by Ron Stewart

Ferruginous hawks are extremely sensitive to disturbance during their nesting season, especially early in the season. And with work to extract oil and gas in the basin a way of life, the hawks often have a difficult time finding a safe place to nest.

But fortunately, four private and public entities—the Newfield Foundation, Rocky Mountain Power, Utah Wildlife in Need (UWIN) and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources—have teamed up to give the birds some help.

The help they've provided has come in the form of manmade nesting structures. The structures—a wood platform mounted on top of a tall telephone pole—tower above the desert. The structures provide the hawks with a solid nesting base that most predators and people can't reach.

"Two of the 22 platforms that have been installed have birds nesting on them [almost all of the time]," says Bob Hasenyager, executive director of UWIN.

A non-profit foundation, UWIN is funding efforts to research and recover the hawks.

The two platforms that are seeing the most use were built by QPE (formerly Questar) in 2000. QPE built the structures on land owned by the Ute Indian tribe on the east side of the Green River.

"These two platforms are among the most consistent and productive nests in the basin," says Brian Maxfield, the Division biologist who leads the agency's efforts to help the birds in northeastern Utah.

Maxfield thinks the key to the platforms' success are their height—even though they're near roads and heavily used areas, they extend farther in the air than other nest structures that have been built.

Maxfield hopes building taller platforms will give the birds extra protection and buffer them from the extraction work and other disturbances caused by people.

With the height of the structures in mind, in 2010, Rocky Mountain Power constructed 15 new poles on the west side of the Green River. All of these poles are about the same height as the poles constructed by QEP in 2000.

The new nesting structures haven't been used by the hawks yet, but that's not unexpected. "Based on other research," Maxfield says, "the average time for a pole to be used by a ferruginous hawk is two to three years after it's placed."

Another key factor for the hawks is their ability to find food. Maxfield says ferruginous hawks in the basin seem to be dependent on rabbits.

"Rabbit populations [go in cycles]," he says. "They peaked in 2004 in much of the ferruginous hawk areas. The rabbit population in the basin was at its lowest in 2009, which triggered a crash in the nesting hawk population."

Maxfield says ferruginous hawks, like most other raptors, won't settle down and nest if they don't find adequate prey at the beginning of the nesting season.

"The rabbit population in the basin has rebounded some, but not much," he says. "When it does increase, the hawk population should increase as well, especially if we can provide safe places to nest."

Unique partnership

A unique partnership among private and public entities is the reason the nest structures are in place.

Most of the poles for the platforms were donated and installed by Rocky Mountain Power and their crews. "This is a win-win project that will help sustain ferruginous hawk populations while allowing for future energy development in the Uinta Basin," says Jim Burruss, lead resource analyst for Rocky Mountain Power.

"We're thrilled that Rocky Mountain Power has provided this critical piece of the project," Hasenyager says. "Over the years, we have partnered with Rocky Mountain Power on important wildlife projects. This is one more example of their environmental consciousness and commitment to Utah and its wildlife."

The funding the Division needs to monitor the nests is coming from the Newfield Foundation. Delores Vasquez, executive director of the Newfield Foundation, says it's exciting to see the hawks.

"We have been involved [in this project] for three years," Vasquez says. "We're dedicated to this multiyear year project with UWIN, Rocky Mountain Power and the Division."

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