By Neal Putnam
The executive director of the Wildlife Research Institute in Ramona was fined $7,500 and placed on three years probation Tuesday after pleading guilty to banding a golden eagle without the required federal permit.
John David Bittner, 68, of Julian, was ordered to turn over electronic data he has collected over the years about eagles, hawks and other birds to government agencies. The prosecutor had asked for a $10,000 fine and successfully won the order for Bittner to turn over his data to government agencies.
No jail time was requested or ordered as U.S. District Court Judge David Bartick said it was not warranted for the misdemeanor offense. Bartick said Bittner had no criminal record and is an Army veteran.
Bartick said Bittner tagged over 200 eagles without the necessary permits in 2010. Bittner told the judge he
currently has six fish and game permits. The judge ordered him to return 623 bands or provide an accounting for them.
“No birds were harmed in any way,” said his attorney Gerissa Santos. “I think he has suffered enough.”
Santos said the publicity about his case has tarnished his reputation, and some of his employees have been laid off.
“Is he still the executive director?” asked Bartick.
“Yes, but he is retiring,” replied Santos.
Bittner made his living from selling data on the movement of birds to assist companies with environmental impact statements needed for the construction and maintenance of power lines and wind power generators.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Pierson disputed there was no harm done to the birds, saying some of them were “stressed out” during the banding procedure. She said Bittner was “putting extra devices on the birds” involving electronic tracking.
In court papers, Pierson said the non-profit organization Bittner founded was paid approximately $625,000 by various clients for its services in 2010. His permit to band birds expired on Jan. 31, 2010, and the permit was renewed on Aug. 12, 2010.
“While Bittner has devoted his life to wildlife, the facts and circumstances surrounding this offense suggest that over the years, Bittner has come to believe that because of his experience in the field, the requirements of permits need not apply to him,” stated Pierson in court documents. “...Bittner repeatedly violated the law by capturing and banding birds without federal and state permits, placing unpermitted devices on birds, conducting aerial surveys after authorization was denied…and allowing an eagle carcass to be brought across state lines.”
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent observed Bittner in Ramona giving an educational program to the public in 2010, according to court records. Bittner explained about capturing two red-tailed hawks. Pierson wrote the first wild hawk was shown “flapping and struggling” in contrast of two rescued birds that were conditioned to humans and showing no sign of stress to the crowd.
“There’s no question you are a significant biologist,” said Bartick to Bittner, adding “but to say that no one was harmed is not entirely accurate.”
Federal service agents visited Bittner in 2012 and inquired if he had any eagle carcasses. Bittner took the agents to four freezers on the property and they found 11 deceased golden eagles which may have been there 2 to 3 years, according to Pierson.
Bittner gave the eagle carcasses to the agents. Pierson wrote that eagle carcasses should be turned over immediately to the National Eagle Repository, as there is a lengthy waiting list for Native Americans to obtain eagle feathers for religious ceremonies.
Golden and bald eagles are protected under federal law and have been described as endangered.
“It is a sacred trust to preserve our natural heritage for future generations. This trust mandates that we observe both the spirit and letter of our law designed to protect the environment,” said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy in a statement afterward.