Every year in late winter and early spring, about 85 to 100 climbing areas nationwide are closed to protect birds of prey during their nesting period. Many of these seasonal bans on climbing are large-scale, fixed closures of entire cliff faces. The peregrine falcon, whose nesting period runs between February and August, is the cause of about half of these closures. (The rest close for golden eagles.)
Once a victim of the egg-destroying pesticide DDT, the peregrine — a crow-sized raptor known for its speed — is now no longer endangered and in recovery. Still, the cliff closures that were designed when they were nearly extinct remain largely unchanged. They frustrate not only climbers but also scientists, who argue that the closures are unnecessarily strict. Unable to make progress with cash-strapped and cautious wildlife officials, many climbers are now taking management into their own hands.
“Climbing was never an impact to the species. It was always DDT,” said Adam Baylor, a regional coordinator for the Access Fund, an advocacy organization based in Boulder, Colorado. “It’s really up to the community at this point to help land managers figure out what’s allowable, what can we do within the space, and be very scientific about it.”
In 1973, the peregrine was listed as federally endangered, its populations nearly eliminated from eastern states and cut by 80 to 90 percent in the West. DDT, once a widely used pesticide, thinned the bird’s eggs and caused unborn chicks to die, bringing them to the brink of extinction. In the 1980s, frantic biologists tried a novel approach to saving them in Yosemite and other national parks and forests: removing brittle DDT-laden eggs from nests, replacing them with wooden eggs, and then later replacing the wooden eggs with captivity-raised chicks. The birds nest high on cliffs, so scientists enlisted the help of climbers to make these swaps.
“Climbers were willing to risk all for the birds” said Rob Roy Ramey II, a biologist and owner of Wildlife Science International, a consulting firm that specializes in threatened and endangered species. Ramey helped with these egg swaps in Yosemite and throughout California, at times joined by well-known climbers from that era, including John “Yabo” Yablonski and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.
The efforts paid off. In 1999, the peregrine was delisted. Since then, the bird’s numbers have steadily increased. A 2016 study estimated the peregrine falcon’s numbers in North America at 80,000. “Clearly, they have fully recovered under any imaginable scenario,” Ramey said.
While the falcon was delisted by the federal government nearly 20 years ago, many states still protect it. And in states that have lifted protection, closures are enforced under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The MBTA was originally drafted to protect wildlife from interstate trafficking and devastating levels of hunting, Ramey said, but it now acts as a “mini Endangered Species Act.”
Many cliffs are managed under cautious principles established in the 1970s, says Dave Peterson, a falconer and retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. At the time, land managers drew wide circles of restricted use around a cliff. Katie Goodwin, public lands associate at the Access Fund, sees many closures consisting of a half-mile radius that extends from a cliff face. Even in areas with smaller closures (there tends to be a lot of variation in how bans are implemented), there’s often no data on if the site is still used for nesting and, therefore, if a closure is warranted.
A few programs show another way, in a process called adaptive monitoring. In Yosemite, for example, a biologist walks along the cliffs throughout the peregrine’s nesting season, spending hours gazing up at each potential nesting site. When it’s determined that an area isn’t being used, the routes around it quickly open up. The closures are updated this way four or five times a season to maximize climber access.
“When we find a peregrine nest that we know is adjacent to climbing routes, we work with the climbing rangers to determine which routes to open and which routes to close,” said Sarah Stock, a wildlife ecologist who manages the program. Peregrines do get stressed when they can clearly see climbers, Stock said, and stressed birds sometimes abandon their nest. But they’re unfazed by climbers farther away: “If a nest is high up on El Capitan, then we can keep the whole bottom portion of the cliff open to climbers.”
The park’s efforts have led to a shortened closure period and improved access. Even at the beginning of the season, which sees the greatest number of closures, 97 percent of routes remain open. Why aren’t more areas managed in this way? A lot it comes down to funding, said Stock, who is applying for grants to continue the program through next year.
“The easiest thing to do is always a blanket closure,” said Randy Kline, trails coordinator at Washington State Parks, who helps prepare the state’s climbing plan. “The options are out there, but they are staff-intensive. We as an agency cannot do it.”
Now, climbers at six areas nationwide are collaborating with the Access Fund to push for more flexible closures at their respective cliffs. In one location, Stone Hill in northwestern Montana, the discovery of a single nest in 2016 led to a 288-acre closure, effective March 1 through August 1 each year. So John Gangemi, a Montana climber and training coordinator with the River Management Society, offered to help monitor the nest sites. He hopes to tap into the membership of the Northwest Montana Climbers Coalition to build a team of citizen scientists to assist him.
More than just help with monitoring, said Access Fund’s Goodwin, the science used by land managers needs to be updated. In Oregon, climbers are doing that, too. In June, Greg Orton, a climbing guidebook author and retired soil scientist, completed a draft scientific literature review and management guide for peregrines. In his own unpaid time, Orton spent three years sifting through more than 100 sources to come up with a “fairly unbiased management strategy,” which he said could apply to other raptor closures around the country.
Overall, Orton finds, there’s little data to support the use of broad, circular closure zones. Instead, his report recommends a focus on site-specific features, such as the shape and size of the cliff and how adapted the area’s peregrines are to human activity. Such considerations create a concise closure zone, mostly limited to the view visible from the nest. Continued monitoring then further limits the closure to the dates when the nest is occupied.
Ramey and Goodwin also think there needs to be a national directive to change the current practices of land managers, such as a memorandum or scientific review that informs officials that peregrines are no longer threatened and guides future management. “In a lot of ways, climbers are currently treated more or less the same as a timber company,” Goodwin said. “Clearly, recreational impacts are not the same as timber.”
In addition to improved cliff access, these changes might also improve relationships between officials and climbers. “In general,” said Ramey, “you get better compliance if the closure is well-justified.”
This article was published in Outside magazine on July 12, 2018.