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Master Naturalists: Golden Eagle Rescue


In 2017, The Ranch started its Master Naturalist program to better explain the beauty of our exceptionally diverse eco-system. In 2018, it expanded to include National Geographic’s Year of the Bird, and in 2019 we’ve added the Rock Creek Field Guide (e-mail) and special classes like our Christmas week Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery Skills Class.

What we didn’t know is that our Montana master naturalists would play an even more active part in helping our eco-system. Read about the rescue, recovery and release of a golden eagle. At the end, you’ll find two important ways you can help raptors in the wild today.


The Rescue

On October 12, 2019, Ranch Master Naturalist and Activities Manager Kelsey Bruns spotted an injured golden eagle on a blind curve on the Skalkaho Road near The Ranch. The golden eagle was on her back when she found her, so she wrapped some clothing over her to be able to hold her wings together. She then, rolled her over, picked her up and took her to the side of the road. Kelsey placed her clothing over her head so that she couldn’t see and was less likely to get spooked and fly away.

Wild Skies Raptor Centers Jesse Varnado holds the rescued golden eagle
Rescued golden eagle, held by Wild Skies Raptor Center’s Jesse Varnado. Photo by Activities Director Patrick Little.

Kelsey reported it to the Wild Skies Raptor Center in Potomac, Montana. The Wild Skies Raptor Center is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to providing rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured raptors in Western Montana. They promote wildlife conservation through on and off-site education programs with live raptors.

“I will forever be in awe that I touched something so wild and free. I am grateful I was able to help such an absolutely stunning creature return to her home.” ~ Master Naturalist Kelsey Bruns

Kelsey, Activities Director Patrick Little and Guide Madi King, all Montana Master Naturalists, helped Wild Skies Raptor Center’s Jesse Varnado secure the golden eagle for x-rays. Patrick captured the rescue on camera. Watch the video of Jesse holding her.


This young golden eagle has a 7 ft. wingspan. Hatch-year eagles have a little bit longer flight and tail feathers than adults. Photo by Activities Director Patrick Little. 

It was determined that the golden eagle’s injuries were likely sustained in a car collision on the blind curve. Although roadkill and other carrion often serves as part of Montana raptors’ diets, living near roadways can also endanger the eagles.

Jesse determined that the 10 lb. young female sustained a pelvic fracture and head trauma due to the collision. She was transported to Potomac, Montana to recover.


The Recovery

Due to their hollow bones, birds like eagles are prone to blood clots when they are healing. The Wild Skies Raptor Center created a treatment program to give her the best possible chance of recovery. The first week of her treatment involved supportive care and containment in order to administer fluids, pain management and adequate nutrition. 


Photo courtesy of Jesse Varnado.

During the second week she was moved outside to move around on her own for two weeks. She dined on venison, rats, rabbit and Guinea pigs.

Once she reached the top perch, Wild Skies started conditioning her for release. During the last two weeks, they exercised her two to three times daily and she was allowed to eat all she wanted. Wild Skies has a permit to collect roadkill to feed the raptors at the center – sticking to a similar diet that they would have in the wild.

“Like most Golden Eagles I’ve worked with over the years, it was an absolute pleasure and an honor to provide her with the time and care she needed to recover.” ~Brooke Tanner, Executive Director of Wild Skies Raptor Center

She was found at 10 lbs. and released at 12 lbs., ready for her return to the Rock Creek area.


Photo courtesy of Jesse Varnado.


The Release

After five weeks of successful recovery, the golden girl was ready to be released. Although she was found near The Ranch, she was released on the mountains at The Ranch, likely part of her previous territory. Watch the video of her release taken by Guide Madi King here.


Releasing the Golden Eagle. Photo courtesy of  Jesse Varnado. 

As a younger female, the raptor center and The Ranch hope she will survive, stay in the area and raise young along Rock Creek. Although mortality is quite high for hatch-year raptors, this center works hard to give raptors a second chance.

She will give back to the team who helped her over the coming year. She was fitted with a GPS satellite transmitter that will help the Wild Skies Raptor Center gather information about migratory, feeding and other behaviors.


Notice the GPS satellite transmitter on the released golden eagle’s back. Photo by Activities Manager Kelsey Bruns.

The transmitter is designed to fall off, but the center is hoping it will stay attached for approximately one year. This is the first time they have every placed a transmitter on a rehabbed bird! Our golden girl is helping make raptor history, and helping this incredible organization learn how to better care for Montana’s rescued birds.



The Two Best Ways to Protect Raptors

Approximately 70-80% of raptors don’t make it past their first year of life. This doesn’t stop the Wild Skies Raptor Center from working hard to increase their odds. Helping a potential breeding female can have a positive impact on raptor populations, which face lead poisoning, vehicle collisions, electrocutions, intentional shootings, trap-related injuries and wind turbine collisions.

According to Executive Director Brooke Tanner, these are the best ways you can help raptors in the wild and after they are rescued:

  1. Switch to non-lead ammunition when hunting. This reduces the incidence of lead poisoning in the raptor population. When lead ammunition is used and birds are hit but not harvested, raptors eat the injured birds, resulting in lead poisoning. The center sees birds die of acute lead poisoning all too often. Read more here
  2. Donate to the Wild Skies Raptor Center’s Giving Tuesday or ongoing donation programs to directly fund more raptor rescues! Donate here.


Read More about The Ranch at Rock Creek’s recent sustainability efforts:

Sustainability Program

Protecting Rock Creek with Trout Unlimited

How to Bird Your World for the Year of the Bird

Sustaining Five-Stars & the Future by Eliminating Single-Use Plastics