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.