A Brief History of Threatened Raptors and How They Affect Climbing Access
Written by Nathan Ball
As climbers, we know that the cliffs that attract us are also the home to a plethora of wildlife. What we may not be aware of is that sometimes these same cliffs are habitat for particularly sensitive species. In many popular climbing destinations, like Smith Rock, Yosemite, and Squamish, raptor closures are founded on wildlife biologists’ observations of the birds. The intent is to determine to what degree they are cohabitable with humans and ensure the breeding success of certain raptors (most commonly peregrine falcons). Though once listed as endangered, these birds have made a miraculous recovery, and in fact have been delisted as a sensitive species in the state of Washington. They remain a sensitive species in certain regions of Oregon, but not around Portland or the Columbia Gorge. At Beacon Rock, however, the closure is not managed through observation and does not comport with current scientific knowledge. It is time to reconsider the parameters of this closure using the same policies and practices that are applied effectively elsewhere.
The Birds’ Story
The story of their decline and recovery begins shortly after World War II. An insecticide known as DDT was used to such excess that it caused a massive decline in raptor populations across the country. Many species of raptors, including the peregrine falcon, were listed under the new Endangered Species Act. This provided public land managers with the basis for large-scale closures in order to ensure that the birds were not disturbed in any way. Even with cliff closures keeping them off the walls, climbers contributed to the success of the birds by cooperating with wildlife biologists to rappel into nests and replace brittle-shelled eggs with wooden ones. They would later return the chicks to the nests after they had hatched. Once the falcons were able to raise young on their own, they were left alone and monitored from a distance. After DDT was banned in the early 70’s, raptor populations began a slow but steady recovery. As their population continued to climb, the ESA protections that justified large-scale closures were lifted. Since being delisted in 2000, the peregrine’s numbers have been estimated to exceed those recorded even before the advent of DDT.
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
However, some land managers maintain the ESA-based closures under the guise of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1910, which was originally created to quell the commercial trade of birds and feathers. Presently, the MBTA protects over 800 species, including: crows that are pushed out of urban habitats; game birds like doves, ducks, and geese that can be hunted recreationally; cliff-dwellers like ravens, pigeons, and swallows whose presence does not warrant closures; and practically-invasive species like cormorants that have been systematically exterminated in some areas. The point here is that maintaining ESA-like restrictions on the basis of the MBTA is problematic at best. The language of the law and its interpretation by the courts restricts people from intentionally killing, pursuing, capturing, or otherwise taking any part of the birds, their eggs, or their nests, but does not protect the birds’ habitat or ability to reproduce, nor from unintentional consequences of human activity such as logging.
A Balanced Approach
This is not to say that all closures are unjustified. Raptors are an integral part of the wild landscapes that attract not just climbers, but birdwatchers and nature-lovers in general. They can also be a hazard to climbers, diving and screeching and sometimes even colliding with any perceived threat to their nest. Looking beyond their value in human terms, raptors have a greater need for and existential right to these spaces than we do. What many people fail to appreciate is that peregrines, specifically, have the ability to adapt to changing and differing environments. There is no better expression of this than their tendency to nest on skyscrapers and bridges, which have been the locations of some of the most successful and enduring eyries of the last several decades. Despite all the commotion of cities, they do provide wide open spaces, easy prey, and ideal nesting ledges. The fact is falcons are capable of living comfortably in close proximity to humans. What we need then is a scientifically-founded approach to managing the spaces we share in such a way that supports human access insofar as it does not encroach upon the birds’ ability to maintain their livelihoods.
Peregrines In Our Area
Many other agencies that manage large climbing areas throughout the United States take exactly such an approach. At Smith Rock State Park, for example, closures are seasonally maintained on the basis of regular observation instead of fixed dates, and viewsheds instead of arbitrary circular boundaries or blanket closures. If the birds move, the closures move with them. In the case of the peregrine falcons that usually nest on the Picnic Lunch Wall, the closure was moved to the Smith Rock Group when they were discovered to have relocated there. Another example closer to home is that of the Cape Horn Trail in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Since implementing a seasonal reopening of the lower portion of trail in 2017, the closure has been determined on the basis of human observation. Last year, despite an estimated July 15th reopening, the young falcons were confirmed to have left the nest in late June, and on July 2nd the lower trail was reopened.
The Situation at Beacon Rock
Unfortunately, despite it being only 8 miles from Cape Horn, the closure of Beacon Rock’s south face – where the vast majority of routes exist – is still maintained as a fixed-date blanket closure from February 1st–July 15th, as it has been since the 90’s. Although the climbing management plan, which was updated in June 2017, specifically states that any closure must be announced and a meeting held before it can be instituted, these stipulations have not been addressed by management, instead maintaining the same closure that was in place when the birds were endangered. Again, they are no longer listed as a “sensitive” species in the state of Washington. The head ranger Heath Yeats has stated via phone conversation that park staff do not pursue their own observations and that, despite the language of the CMP, they do not consider this when implementing or lifting the closure.
Actions Being Taken
Monitoring has been pursued independently by volunteers. Volunteers have also secured funding for other park projects, none of which have been initiated due to lack of park cooperation. During these observations, two separate instances of climbers on the south face were seen, despite the closure. The first group climbed the route Free For All which comes to within 100’ directly below the nest, and the second climbed the Southeast Corner, which comes to within 250’ horizontally of it. The birds showed no apparent signs of defensiveness in either case. In addition, the Washington State Park Planner, Randy Kline, has expressed an interest in experimenting with new closure boundaries based on observable climber-falcon interactions in order to expand public access. He has worked previously with climber groups on falcon closures at Index, where the Washington Climbers Coalition has documented their presence and posted signs accordingly. Unfortunately, Randy’s enthusiasm has not warmed Heath to the idea, and we are likely to see the exact same closure again come February 1st, 2019.
Based on past observations at Beacon Rock, effective policy implementation at Smith Rock and elsewhere, as well as the latest wildlife biologists’ research on falcon behavior, it is reasonable to conclude that the current closure is excessive both in temporal and physical extent. However, peregrines are a particularly temperamental species, and it does take them a while to adapt to changes. That is why we at PACC believe that a conservative approach to reconsidering the closure boundaries would best. A proposed two-phase approach could be implemented over the course of as many seasons as deemed necessary by state park wildlife biologists working in tandem with relevant climber groups.
In Phase 1, single-pitch routes below Snag Ledge and east of the Second Tunnel, as well as the entirety of Young Warriors, would remain open year-round. Everything else would be closed during the nesting season, which would include Southeast Corner from pitch 3 to the top, Jill’s Thrill, Fear of Flying, Right Gull, Bluebird, Blownout, Flying Dutchman, Blood Sweat & Smears, Dod’s Jam, Free For All, Windsurfer, and Jensen’s Ridge, among others. If the falcons were to successfully produce young without significant disturbance or incident, then the closure could be minimized further.
In Phase 2, all single-pitch routes, as well as multi-pitch and extension routes east of the Second Tunnel, would remain open year-round. This would include Flying Dutchman, Wild Turkeys, Blownout, Bluebird, Right Gull, Fear of Flying, Jill’s Thrill, and the entirety of Southeast Corner, among others. Everything else would be closed during the nesting season, which would include Jensen’s Ridge pitch 2, Dod’s Jam, Blood Sweat & Smears, Flying Swallow, Ground Zero, and Dirty Double Overhang, among others.
Closing and opening dates would be determined by observations performed by qualified individuals including trained volunteers as well as state park staff. The West Face (all routes west of Jensen’s Ridge) will remain open year-round.