BOZEMAN – It took wildlife officials a few minutes to coax her out of her cage and back into the wild, but a young eagle rescued from the Yellowstone River near Billings in late November was returned to the wild on Tuesday.
Officials from the Bozeman-based Montana Raptor Conservation Center and ZooMontana released the bird, who is 2 1/2 to 3 years old and weighs 11 1/2 pounds, at Norm Schoenthal Island south of Billings after she spent almost two weeks recovering at the raptor center.
Passers-by walking at the island spotted the bird on the riverbank on Nov. 26 and, after they spoke with local game and wildlife officials, contacted the center, who in turn asked ZooMontana to help find and rescue the bird.
"They stayed with the bird until help arrived," said Becky Kean, the center's director. "That's key a lot of times, just having someone there to point out where it is."
The people who found the bird waited with her until Jeff Ewelt, the zoo's director, showed up.
"We don't know exactly what happened," he said. "Most likely, she fell into the river hunting."
Bald eagles can swim, and it appears the bird managed to pull herself out of the river, but was too worn out after to do much besides lay on the bank.
The next day, a zoo staff member drove the young eagle to the raptor center in Bozeman, where she dried out and underwent some extra flight conditioning until the center decided she could be released.
Kean said the eagle wasn't injured, but needed food, rest and a little conditioning before she could get back out into the wild.
A nonprofit organization, the Montana Raptor Conservation Center does just that and has, so far this year, worked with about 175 birds.
With their help, the young eagle made a quick recovery.
"We got her in our flight barn and she was just a beast," Kean said.
Several dozen people were on hand at the island for the bird's release. It took Ewelt and a center staff member a few minutes to coax her out of her cage.
Once they did, she took a test flight to a nearby tree and perched on a branch for a few minutes before soaring off over the Yellowstone River, circling in wide loops.
"Hopefully, she learned from her mistake," Ewelt said.
Ewelt said that "a healthy population" of bald eagles lives along the Yellowstone around Billings.