Committed to conservation

Kelsey Walkerkwalker@examiner-enterprise.com
Committed to conservation

Just a few minutes — as the crow flies — southwest of Bartlesville, a team of biologists work quietly (aside from the occasional squawk) at a secluded facility on an oak-covered hilltop. Here, at the 40-acre George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center, the small nonprofit has become a leader in avian research, conservation and education.

“There is a tremendous amount of curiosity, (but) not a lot of people know what the Sutton Center is beyond the fact that we’re in the Bartlesville area,” says Executive Director Jeremy Ross. “We have tasked ourselves with getting the word out farther into the Bartlesville community.”

Founded in 1983 with the mission of finding cooperative conservation solutions for birds and the natural world through science and education, the Sutton Center quickly made a name for itself through its bald eagle restoration efforts. Between 1984 and 1992, the Sutton Center raised and released 275 southern bald eagles in the southeastern U.S. Bald eagle eggs were removed from nests in Florida and transported to the captive breeding facility in Bartlesville. Once here, the eggs were incubated, hatched and the resulting eaglets were raised and released in high quality habitats in five southeastern states.

In Oklahoma alone, the number of bald eagle nests in the early ’90s was in the single digits. Ross says there are now 125 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the state.

Thanks in part to the work of the Sutton Center, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered and threatened species list on June 28, 2007.

“(The Sutton Center) has been important right from inception,” Ross says. “The Sutton Center was integral to the recovery of the bald eagle in the Southern United States. If it hadn’t been for the work of Steve Sherrod and Alan Jenkins and all of their volunteers and technicians throughout the years, you wouldn’t see bald eagles in Oklahoma or certainly not as many as we see nowadays. … It was a wildly successful program. We’re taking that expertise and applying it to other species now.”

Taking the lead

Ross is a born biologist, his passion for birds instilled in him by grandfathers on both sides of his family tree. One, in particular, was a “snowbird,” who migrated to Phoenix, Ariz., every winter and returned home each spring.

“It was always a good time when the songbirds started showing up because I knew that my grandfather was coming back,” says Ross.

It was this grandfather’s migratory pattern that first interested him in the migration of birds.

He studied at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he earned his doctorate in conservation biology. He then served as a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where he learned more about the Sutton Center, which is affiliated with OU through the Oklahoma Biological Survey.

“I was familiar with it in that context,” Ross says. “I had also started to do a little bit of collaborative work with the biologists up here.”

When the executive director position opened, it fit many of Ross’s interests in terms of conservation, research and education.

“I’ve always had real passion for nonprofits,” he says. “With the Sutton Center’s nonprofit status, we could actually do on-the-ground conservation research and not just basic research that you might relegated to do at a university level.”

His wife, Elizabeth, with a background in project development and education, serves as Sutton’s director of development.

Research & Conservation

A number of different research and conservation projects are either underway or in development at the Sutton Center. Many of the species studied by Sutton Center biologists are grassland species, particularly prairie grouse species.

“This is a group of species that really has declined a tremendous amount over the last 50 years,” says Ross. “It’s not necessarily hunting pressure and it’s not necessarily direct mortality … A lot of people talk about wind development (as a cause), but I think it’s a whole host of issues that are affecting the species — habitat loss, habitat degradation, disease, competition. So we’re taking the lead on prairie grouse conservation.”

One of the big projects, championed by Executive Director Emeritus and Director of Conservation Steve Sherrod, is the captive breeding of Attwater’s prairie chicken. The prairie grouse breeds in southern Texas, but is critically endangered.

“There’s only a few hundred in the wild,” says Ross. “That population would certainly go extinct if it weren’t supplemented by individuals produced in captivity.”

Ross says the Sutton Center is taking the lead on experimenting with a few ways of breeding the birds in captivity in hopes to improve that species’ future prospects.

“Currently, it’s just barely holding on,” says Ross. “We’re trying to research new ways to ready those birds for release into the wild.”

Sutton also continues to monitor bald eagles in Oklahoma, including through the use of satellite trackers. The small “backpacks” are put on young bald eagles in the nest. When they fledge and fly off and grow into maturity, biologists can track the birds as they move across the country and eventually return to Oklahoma.

The center is also “heavily involved” in field studies of the lesser prairie chicken near Woodward. The species has made news in recent years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as “threatened.” The ruling was struck down by a judge, though Ross says it’s now up for appeal.

“It’s a species in turmoil and there’s a lot of anxiety about … what protections will equate to.”

Other emerging projects involve another critically endangered species, the masked bobwhite, a species that breeds in southern Arizona down into Mexico. The species is nearly extinct — if not completely so — in the wild, so Ross says it completely relies on captive breeding to ensure the species’ survival.

Within the year, the Sutton Center will also release the “Oklahoma Winter Bird Atlas,” a complement to the “Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas,” which was a finalist for the 2005 Oklahoma Book Award. To be published by the University of Oklahoma Press, the book will look at what species are wintering in Oklahoma — and where specifically, and in what abundance.

“That’s pretty critical because (for) birds three-quarters of the year is a non-breeding period, and that might be critical to them. … These species that are declining in the northern Great Plains might be declining because of habitat losses or disturbance here in the southern Great Plains, where they are wintering,” says Ross.

Education

The center’s free-flight bird show, “It’s All About Birds,” is designed to educate, entertain, inspire and awe. The educational program tours schools across the state with a three-person team — including Ryan VanZant, director of education, Kimberly Lobit, environmental education specialist, and an education intern.

Accompanied by rear-projected images, video and music, the show — billed as “great fun” for school kids and adults alike — illustrates environmental conservation principles in a manner that is not only entertaining but is also educational and designed to fulfill Oklahoma’s state educational objectives.

“It’s always the same stage because the birds need to key in on that specific stage, so they know where to look to find their trainer. They’ll set up that stage and practice with the birds,” says Ross. “The next day, when all the children come in, a lot of the birds will fly right over the heads of people in the audience.”

Another education initiative is the bald eagle nest camera, a live website feed of two Oklahoma eagle nests.

“It’s wildly popular,” Ross says. “When there’s young in the nest and people can watch these young grow and be fed by their parents … we have thousands of visitors every day.”

In the past couple years, however, the center has encountered a patch of bad luck in that one of the nests has not been used and the other feed failed for a variety of reasons. Ryan says they will reconvene this winter and hope to find a few additional sites, so as “not to put all of our eggs in two baskets.”

The center’s website also features a plethora of photos shared by volunteer photographers, and Ross says they are always looking for more. Anyone who is willing to share photos will be given credit on the website.

The site will debut a more modern look by the end of October, a move to accommodate the rising use of mobile platforms and devices such as tablets.

“Our old website wasn’t engaging for people. It was time to renew,” says Ross. “Coming in as a new director, I wanted the website to also look different and new and fresh. It’s partly a reflection that we’re in a growth phase. There’s a lot of changes happening at the Sutton Center.”

Development

While the facility is closed to the public except for pre-arranged tours, Ross and his team are working to raise awareness, especially locally, of the center’s vital work. One way is through the Friends of Sutton program, coordinated by Elizabeth Ross, which brings volunteers to the facility on a weekly basis to assist with day-to-day tasks — such as cataloguing slides and journals, construction or cleanup projects. One team of observers — the Bald Eagle Survey Team, or BEST for short — assists in the monitoring of bald eagle nests throughout the winter and spring.

“They are assigned a certain area and they go check in on those nests,” Ross says. “They are tremendously helpful in helping us keep track of the recovery of the bald eagle in Oklahoma.”

An 8,000-square-food administration building provides office, library, conference and dining space for the center. Several large laboratories and barns provide research areas and house the high quality captive-breeding facilities. But the growing staff — 12 in the Bartlesville area — is running out of room. Ross hopes to either add new spaces or renovate existing building, much like the former eagle barn. After the success of the bald eagle project, the eagle barn, previously used to house the bald eagles before they were ready to fledge, was partly transformed into an education facility with a stage and auditorium.

“We want to continue that process and make that entirely into our education facility at the Sutton Center, where we can put offices, classrooms, bathrooms and renovate some of the spaces … so that (the birds) have a more enriching space to fly around in,” Ross says. Funding is already being sought.

“It’s not something that people think about — there being this world-class conservation organization here in Bartlesville, but really there is,” he says.

A members-only picnic is planned for Saturday at Sutton Center. Anyone who is a current member as of Saturday will be allowed in for more than four hours of family-friendly activities, including the “It’s All About Birds” program.

For more information about the Sutton Center, visit www.suttoncenter.org.