Thanks to an incredibly long life, one Jackson Hole bald eagle helped her species recover.
By Julie Fustanio Kling
“Big Momma,” a 34-year-old bald eagle during rehabilitation at the Teton Raptor Center
A LOCAL LEGEND was discovered on March 12, 2016: a female bald eagle that had been electrocuted by a power line and was rescued not far from the Jackson Hole Airport. Because she had a tag, a time-stamped serial number in the archives of the U.S. Geological Survey, wildlife biologists at the Teton Raptor Center, where she was sent to recover, could see she was alive way back in 1982. So in 2016, she was at least thirty years old. (Most female bald eagles survive about twenty years in the wild.) Further investigation revealed she had been tagged near Hoback, Wyoming. Center staff named her: “She was just sort of a different bird,” says the center’s rehabilitation director Meghan Warren. “More mature. More mellow. She had a different kind of energy. So we started calling her ‘Ma’am’ and ‘Big Momma.’ ”
Big Momma was the oldest known tagged bald eagle west of the Mississippi River, and the third-oldest tagged bald eagle ever confirmed anywhere in the country. When she was born, her species was on the Endangered Species List. As Warren cared for soft-tissue injuries to the bald eagle’s wrist and feet, center staff quickly began extrapolating on the role Big Momma likely played in repopulating the country’s national bird from her nest up on Saddle Butte.
“When she was a chick in nest, her parents were one of [about] four hundred pairs in the Lower 48, and now there are thousands [of pairs],” Warren says. “She probably had nineteen years of mating and one to two chicks per year, making a huge impact on the population.” While there is no telling exactly how many offspring she had, biologists speculate it could be in the hundreds if you include eaglets, grandeaglets, and great-grandeaglets. There’s no doubt that Big Momma’s babies helped bald eagles get removed from the U.S. government’s list of endangered species (this happened in 1995) and, in 2007, removed from the list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the Lower 48 states. Over her long life, she saw the reintroduction of wolves, and had a bird’s eye view of growth in Jackson Hole.
ELECTROCUTION BY POWER lines is one of the leading causes of death for bald eagles. As much as the Teton Raptor Center did to help Big Momma recover from her electrocution, she couldn’t be saved. The electricity that passed through her body burned her up from the inside. On April 21, 2016, almost six weeks after she was electrocuted, Big Momma was euthanized. Her wings were about to fall off. “I don’t think we have ever seen a patient that has tugged on our heartstrings as much as [Big Momma],” says Amy McCarthy, the raptor center’s executive director. She adds that her staff was in tears when they put Big Momma out of her suffering. “She had been part of this community, of Jackson Hole, for 34 years.”