LOVELAND – Diane Kristoff is busy explaining the complexities of raptor forage, open space planning and conservation easements when a 10-pound tangle of brown feathers soars in to simplify her day.
One of the golden eagles Kristoff has been watching every week for three years lands in a cottonwood a quarter-mile away, across rolling meadows just southwest of downtown Loveland. That the only known tree-nesting pair of golden eagles on the Front Range is still alive and hungry for prairie dogs is the news that keeps Kristoff going.
“I think it has restorative powers,” Kristoff said, watching to see if the eagle would begin hunting the rabbits and prairie dogs sunning themselves on a January melt day. “In these difficult times, it’s stressful, and if people can come to a place like this, and see something so majestic as a golden eagle . . . it just relaxes you. It’s as good as yoga.”
Now that the faithful eagle has filled the lens of her powerful spotting scope, Kristoff can return to describing her own relentless mission.
Kristoff and a devoted group of trained observers want Loveland Open Lands and Trails to move the path of a planned recreation trail farther away from the eagles’ tree. Though longstanding state wildlife guidance says trails should be at least a half mile from eagle nests to avoid disturbing a raptor that can be far more shy than bald eagles, the city says a third of a mile will be fine.
The Loveland eagle watchers, highly organized and with the backing of local and regional Audubon groups and the Sierra Club, say the birds deserve the full buffer. The nest in the cottonwoods is special – all the other known golden eagles on the northern Front Range nest in cliffs in the foothills. It would crush the volunteers to see the pair they’ve documented every week for years be hazed by flashing bicycle rims and pink Lycra speeding past at 22 miles an hour.
“The City of Loveland will be taking a great risk of interfering with or even displacing these eagles if the current trail plan and route is adopted,” said Dana Bove, a leader of the nonprofit Front Range Eagles. While bald eagles have made comebacks, the larger golden eagles are in decline, he said.
“With the pace of development on the Front Range, forest fires and loss of habitat, their well-being is a huge concern,” said Bove, who taught Kristoff and others how to make scientific observations of the eagles that would earn respect with planners.
Loveland officials say they have not finalized the plan for Eagle Vista Natural Area. But they acknowledge that the latest version of the plan to create new public access puts the recreation trail within a third of a mile of the nest. They say they have consulted outside environmental contractors and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and gotten the go-ahead.
There are conflicting desires around the 185-acre property, which Loveland purchased in 2016 to preserve public park space as northern Front Range development continues to soar. Money from Berthoud and Larimer County helped pay for the land, and the trail is meant to connect portions of the state-spanning Front Range Trail. Homeowners on the eastern edge of the space want the trail pushed west, toward the eagles, to give themselves breathing room, Open Lands and Trails Manager Marilyn Hilgenberg said.
“Although a portion of the trail would fall within the half mile recommended eagle-nest buffer, there is no visibility to the eagle nest from the trail corridor and more than 90% of the Eagle Vista property would remain protected for wildlife habitat with no public access,” Hilgenberg wrote, responding to questions that were emailed.
“Our verbal consultation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife so far has indicated that we can anticipate their support,” she added.
Moreover, Hilgenberg’s email said, “there is no budget for an alternative trail alignment.”
Citing an OK from state Parks and Wildlife infuriates the birders, who know state bird recommendations chapter and verse. They say the state should not put itself in the position of offering exemptions or sanctions to deviate from their own research. Developers frequently take those official blessings and convince local planning boards to make changes that inevitably rule against wildlife, Bove said.
Parks and Wildlife “has no documented or defensible reasons to counter their own 2020 golden eagle nest recommendations” for Eagle Vista Natural Area planners, Bove said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife does have a defense, though, calling the site a “well-camouflaged nest” and one that state biologists have been consulting on regularly with Loveland officials.
If the project proceeds as currently mapped, the nest would indeed be within the half-mile buffer recommended for eagles improving their nests in December and January, and then hatching and raising eaglets from February to mid-July, Area Wildife Manager Jason Duetsch, who is based in Loveland, wrote in an email.
“Obviously not wanting an outcome that may lead to nest failure,” Duetsch wrote, cities like Loveland can back the trail off as far as possible, build trails outside nesting season, create sight barriers for the eagles, or enforce seasonal trail restrictions.
The state will continue to work with Loveland, Duetsch wrote, noting that Parks and Wildlife “does not mandate land-use decisions.”
Loveland, which is working with nearby Berthoud to plan the open space, says it has accommodated raptor nests before, including bald eagles nesting at Boedecker West Natural Area. Biologists have been watching the Eagle Vista golden pair for more than four years, Hilgenberg said.
The dedicated citizen observers, meanwhile, have their own examples of Front Range raptor nests disturbed by development that never recovered. Kristoff had a nearby favorite in a red tail hawk pair, “and the hawks vacated the nest,” she said.
In a letter to Loveland opposing the proposed trail alignment, the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club cited studies of the Front Range extending from Wyoming to New Mexico that “attributed 46%-85% of golden eagle nesting failures and losses to human disturbance.”
Kristoff and other observers feel especially protective of the rare golden eagle tree nest after putting in the years of time and meticulous observation requirements of the Front Range Eagles group. They set up powerful scopes at various locations around the perimeter of the proposed open space, and take notes of activity every three minutes.
Their lists of neutral observations accumulate to a fiercely partisan affinity for the winged pair. Kristoff has watched the female sit on eggs through February storms, and the male circles for dozens of miles to bring food back to hatchlings. Kristoff and the team have watched juveniles take first flight, and at other times fall to the ground to an unknown fate before first flight.
They know the nest cannot exist completely free of local disturbance.
Kristoff appreciates how eager neighbors are to see more trails developed to make it even easier to access the meadow walks and sublime views of the Mummy Range. Neighbors often stop at her scope to talk about how they’ve seen eagle pairs in the area for decades.
The golden eagles have accustomed themselves to many exurban realities – a garbage truck grinding up West County Road 16 near a favored perch produced no flinch in Kristoff’s eagle visitor on Friday.
Threats keep building, though, from Front Range wildfires to builders wanting more homes around the edges of Eagle Vista, Kristoff said. Why shouldn’t local leaders and state biologists err on the side of the golden eagles, for once?
“The open land in this part of Colorado is disappearing,” said Kristoff, who moved west a few years ago from New Jersey. “And golden eagles would just like to have this one area. And they can’t talk. They can’t speak for their needs.”