Photo: Larry Malvin

Climbing Conservationists: Unlikely Partners Fight to Keep Cliffs Wild

In the Rocky Mountains, climbers and scientists are joining forces to protect threatened cliffside environments. 

Perched on the side of a cliff in Boulder, Colorado, there’s a golden eagle nest the size of a VW Bug.

“It’s frickin’ huge,” says Christian Nunes, a raptor expert and wildlife resources coordinator with Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) program. “I could totally go up there and lay down in it if I wanted to.”

Golden eagles—ecologically critical birds declining in population throughout the West—have been using the nest for decades, Nunes says, a pretty clear indicator that it’s a prime spot for rearing young. The rub? The cliff is also a prime spot for rock climbing.

In the 1980s, Boulder OSMP began instituting voluntary climbing closures on cliffs throughout Boulder. It was a well-intentioned effort to protect nesting raptors, but the local climbing community was surprised by the size of the closures, which were often sweeping and indefinite, says Daniel Dunn. Dunn is a stewardship manager for the Boulder Climbing Community (BCC), a nonprofit climber advocacy group.

“That’s when climbers started to get engaged,” adds Dunn. “The community really started looking for solutions.”

Local climbers, who knew the cliffs better than anyone, were able to help researchers pinpoint the exact locations of nests and zero in on the length of the average nesting season. At first, the data collection was just a tool for climbers to prove that indefinite closures weren’t necessary, but over time, the program turned into something even more important: A decades-long collaboration between land managers and climbers.

Today, the BCC both assists local land managers and operates its own monitoring program, which is now one of the longest running climber-led conservation programs in the country. Every year, Boulder climbers scale cliffs to install cameras near historic nest sites. Volunteers monitor the sites and track the fledglings to make sure cliffs aren’t reopened until the birds have left. Climbers also go out and scope for new nests, Dunn says.

“Golden eagles usually pick the same spots every year, but peregrines change nest sites,” he explains. When BCC volunteers find a new eagle or peregrine falcon nest, they report it to the relevant land manager.

Photo: David

And that’s big, says Will Keeley, a lead ecologist with Boulder OSMP. Since reporting nests to conservation authorities has the potential to spark more closures, climbers’ willingness to call them in is a testament to the strength of the climber-land manager relationship—a relationship that’s been crucial for protecting the birds.

“Just this year, a re-nesting attempt by peregrine falcons caused us to extend the closure at the Third Flatiron,” Keeley says, referring to a popular local cliff. “The climbing community supported this and got the message out that the young falcons needed another 10 days of disturbance-free environment to separate themselves from the rock formation. It was great to have the climbing community support our management and spread the word.”

Raptors aren’t the only creatures to benefit from climbers’ intimate knowledge of vertical terrain. Volunteer climbers and mountaineers were a crucial source of data for a study examining how pikas might adapt to climate change. And in 2014, a group of Colorado researchers and bat enthusiasts banded together to launch a project they called Climbers for Bat Conservation (CBC).

Like eagle populations, bat numbers have been sharply declining throughout the U.S. over the past few decades, says Rob Schorr, a bat biologist and one of CBC’s founders. Before teaming up with climbers, he adds, bat biologists didn’t have a good way to monitor—and therefore protect—bat populations in the West.

“Climbers get a perspective that no one else does,” says Schorr. “[Unlike most researchers], they have the opportunity to see bats when they’re naturally roosting. And they’ve found that bats are using these cracks and flakes in the rock. That was a whole new piece of the ecological puzzle that only climbers were able to help us solve.”

Over the past five years, CBC has collected over 100 data points as climbers call in to report bat sightings on cliffs throughout the Rockies. And in 2019, climber-led surveys along the Front Range revealed two new roosting sites that might never have been discovered without climbers’ help.  

“It’s only because of climbers that we’re able to understand how bats use these environments,” Schorr says.

That’s a huge shift, says Dunn. Decades ago, land managers often saw climbers as the enemy, he says, sometimes assuming that species population declines, especially those of raptors, were a direct result of disturbance from recreation.

“Programs like this shift land managers from thinking climbers are part of the problem to seeing them as part of the solution,” he says. “If you can get climbers to buy in, we can really help protect these species.”

If you see a raptor nest, help protect the birds by reporting it to the area’s land manager. If you have a bat sighting to report, contact CBC at climbersforbats.colostate.edu.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.