John David Bittner, executive director of the Wildlife Research Institute headquartered in Ramona, pled guilty today in federal court to capturing and banding 144 migratory birds, including at least one female golden eagle, even though he had no permit to do so.
The wildlife researcher who lives in Julian will be sentenced July 11 by Magistrate Judge David Bartick.
Bittner, whose work includes the capture and banding of eagles and other migratory birds to track their movements, had a federal bird banding permit that expired on Jan. 31, 2010, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy.
Two weeks later, Bittner requested that his permit be renewed. Federal officials advised Bittner that since he had not reported any data for the birds he had banded since October 2006, his permit would not be renewed until he submitted the delinquent data.
Officials said the lack of data is particularly troubling because it is the kind of data that allows the Fish and Game Service to monitor the health of the eagle populations within the United States.
Bittner admitted that between Jan. 31, 2010, and Aug. 12, 2010, he captured and banded more than 140 migratory birds and at least one golden eagle even though he had no permit.
Officials said the bald eagle population has rebounded in the past decades, but the golden eagle population is not expanding and may be in decline.
The golden eagle — first listed as endangered in the 1970s — was downgraded to “threatened” and then taken off the endangered list.
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act continues to protect the birds by prohibiting anyone without a permit from “taking” eagles, including their parts, nests and eggs. The definition of “take” includes pursuit, shooting at, poisoning, killing, capturing and disturbing the birds.
“It is a sacred trust to preserve our natural heritage for future generations," Duffy said. “This trust mandates that we observe both the spirit and letter of laws designed to protect the environment.”