They have to rank as the most unusual highway signs anywhere in the state. But preliminary indications are the six "Eagles on Highway" warning signs in central Utah are doing the job.
Not a single golden eagle was struck by a car during the 1989-90 winter season.In the two years previous, 30 golden eagles were killed and another 11 crippled by automobiles on a stretch of I-70 between the Colorado border and the San Rafael Swell.
"We don't know whether it's because the mild winter has spread the birds around more or whether it's because the prairie dog population is down and the birds have moved elsewhere, or what," said Miles Moretti, regional supervisor for the Division of Wildlife Resources.
"What we do know is we've received a lot of comments from people seeing signs and watching the birds and being aware of the problem. From a public awareness standpoint the program is a success."
Wildlife officers, in cooperation with the Utah Department of Transportation, placed the six warning signs along I-70 last year. Officers will continue to monitor the eagle problem along I-70 for the next few years to better determine if the program is working.
Most golden eagles have been killed during the winter months when food is scarce and the birds venture onto the highway in search of road-killed rabbits or prairie dogs. Most of the eagles struck by cars are immature birds 1 or 2 years old.
Some eagles survived their encounters and were taken to rehabilitators John and Marilyn Bicking in Moab. It was the Bickings who first approached Wildlife Resources about placing warning signs.
So far, only golden eagles have been struck by cars. Bald eagles migrate into the Utah desert during the winter months but have so far eluded motorists.
Wildlife Resources officers hope the trend continues, but it is too early yet to make any assumptions. "The birds just aren't here this year," Moretti said. "We hope it's because they are dispersed more, and the milder weather makes it so they don't have to feed on road kills."
Bald eagles traditionally live the summer months in Wyoming, Montana, Canada and other northern regions, and begin migrating into Utah's deserts every November. They usually leave by about March.
Some golden eagles live in the desert all year long, though Wildlife Resources studies indicate others migrate to the Cisco Desert from the Price area about 100 miles to the north.
The golden eagle population in the central part of the state has been rebounding since its low point in 1986, Moretti said. While it has not reached the population highs of 1981-82, the population is currently at its highest point since that time.
If the reduction in road kills is due simply to driver awareness, "then there are other areas where we'd like to see UDOT put up some signs," Moretti said.
In addition, the division is working with Utah Power & Light Co. and US WEST to install modified utility poles to prevent the birds from perching upon them.
The signs on eastbound I-70 are located at Crescent Junction, Green River and where motorists leave the San Rafael Swell. Westbound signs are located at the Utah-Colorado border, at Crescent Junction and at the intersection of I-70 and U-6.