"Once an eagle grabs a hold of you—you're stuck," said Tom Rogers '04.
Holding up his sun-bronzed hand, Rogers pointed to where he was grabbed by a bald eagle last winter. "I was stuck to the eagle for ten minutes, with no one around; no walky-talky or cell phone. I thought I'd be stuck for quite some time."
As a researcher at Craighead Beringia South, a nonprofit science and education organization located just outside of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, Rogers spent six months (in 2006-2007) trapping and testing bald and golden eagles for ingested heavy metals.
As he looked down at the faded scars on his left hand, Rogers conveyed both a fascination and respect for North America's largest raptors. "Eagles are really dangerous. [They're] the largest and most powerful of the raptors—they can crack bone."
Rogers began working with eagles somewhat by chance. Prior to this most recent study, the team at Craighead Beringia South had discovered high lead levels in the park's raven population. Scavengers that feed on the dead elk, moose, and deer, including leftover "gut piles" from the Grand Teton National Park's big-game hunt, ravens appeared to be ingesting the residual lead from hunters' bullets and shot. Worried that the effects of lead exposure and poisoning could have a similar effect on the park's birds of prey, Derek Craighead, Beringia South's president, decided to expand the raven study.
"Most people don't know that eagles are also huge scavengers," Rogers explained. "Eagle migration comes to the Tetons because of the hunt and what they can get out of it. Grand Teton National Park is one of the only national parks in country that allows a big-game hunt. [As a result] the hunting is unlike anywhere else in country, and the eagles that used to go to California for salmon runs [that no longer occur there] now come to Jackson Hole."
As evidence of this shift in eagle migratory patterns, since September 2006 Rogers and his colleagues have trapped 40 eagles, including a record-sized 18-pound golden eagle. Once a bird is safely trapped, Rogers and his team members take blood samples for lead testing and feather samples for carbon profiling to determine the eagle's origins (for young birds) and age and to locate residual metals. They then release the eagle with a USGS band in order to track the bird in the event that it is recaptured.
The findings of the team's study have yet to be published, but the potential of dangerously high lead levels in a national symbol living within a national park could spark quite a response. Asked if his work at Beringia South has helped to inspire political and conservation initiatives, Rogers said: "We try to remove [the study] from political motivations. We're out there to do the science—to try to determine if there is a problem. … It's not our position to say what to do about it."
If the researchers did otherwise, "All of a sudden, our science becomes less credible," Rogers said.
His emphasis on the hard science of his study over any potential political or conservation movements has roots in his experiences at Colby. A biology major, Rogers served as a researcher for Assistant Professor Stacey Lance (biology), working on DNA sequencing, and did a songbird research Jan Plan with Herb Wilson, Arey Professor of Biosciences. Rogers also spent a Jan Plan in Kenya studying zebras with a Princeton biologist.
"Programs at Colby helped me get this type of job and get started down this road as well," said Rogers. Since graduating, his connections on Mayflower Hill have helped further. "I've been in touch with a lot of the biology professors, and they've been really helping me find grants and with establishing advisors for grad school," he said.
In addition to his work with Beringia South, Rogers recently began a study on lead levels in large carnivores. Working with samples from black and grizzly bears, wolves, and coyotes, Rogers has begun to compile data that will give him a considerable head start as he begins applying to graduate schools over the coming year.
From ravens to eagles to grizzlies, four years after leaving Mayflower Hill Rogers has not only taken advantage of the opportunities presented to him but also has combined his passion for the outdoors with a career interest in wildlife biology. Asked if he would share his secrets to success, Rogers smiled and paused.
"My advice to Colby students would be to try to do what you enjoy after college regardless of money," said Rogers.
—Chris Zajchowski '07