In the 1850s, the northern Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico was a vast expanse of black grama and tobosa grasses, broken only by the solitary spikes of soaptree yuccas. The aplomado falcon worked those grasslands, picking off songbirds and insects with its razor-sharp talons.
The boldly marked bird ranges from 12 to 16 inches long, not much bigger than a kestrel but with a significantly longer tail that enables it to change course in mid-flight and accelerate upward at incredibly steep angles. This makes the aplomado the perfect grassland hunter, able to dart around low-lying shrubs and swoop and swerve through the desert grasses.
But the aplomado doesn’t hunt here anymore. A century of overgrazing devastated the falcon’s desert home. Today, the once-vibrant grasslands are a sea of shrubs, invaded by mesquite and creosote bush. Although grazing has diminished, parts of the landscape are still chewed down to the nub. And now there’s a new threat: large-scale oil and gas development.
Carrie Chalcraft knows this well. In 2001, Chalcraft was chosen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to write a plan for reintroducing the aplomado falcon to New Mexico. But a year and a half into the project, she watched her agency do what she calls a "complete one-eighty," when a Washington, D.C., directive swooped down and reversed aplomado policy almost overnight.
Chalcraft had begun work on the project during an exciting time. Northern aplomado falcons, thought to have vanished from the United States in the early 1950s, were turning up again. Reports of sightings first surfaced in the late 1980s, but few biologists believed them; true, aplomados survived in Mexico, but the nearest birds were more than 1,000 miles away. "Aplomado falcons were considered sort of like the ivory-billed woodpecker," says Sandy Williams, a New Mexico Department of Game and Fish biologist who collects bird sightings in his role as regional editor for the journal North American Birds. "Anybody who reported one was looked at as sort of a crackpot."
But in 1991, falcon biologist Angel Montoya photographed an aplomado at the White Sands Missile Range in southeastern New Mexico. The next year, Montoya discovered a population of aplomados just 75 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border; the birds were migrating north, recolonizing their former homeland. The reports — and the photographs — kept coming, and state biologists soon confirmed that the endangered aplomado was making a comeback.
The bird’s natural return was slow, however, so the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to give it a boost. Aplomado falcons had already been reintroduced in Texas under a program called "safe harbor" that is designed to make endangered species releases easier on private landowners. The Service decided to use the same program for New Mexico, and Chalcraft began drafting a safe-harbor agreement.
Drafts flew back and forth between Chalcraft, other biologists, and Joy Nicholopoulos, field supervisor for the New Mexico Ecological Services Division. By spring 2002, the document was nearly finished. And the bird had made some progress of its own: In March, a pair of aplomados nested in Luna County, N.M., for the third time in two years. Then came the big "one-eighty."
"I was in the middle of writing the final draft" for a safe harbor release, says Chalcraft. "Then Joy Nicholopoulos told me I had to do the 10(j). There was direction from Washington telling us to start pursuing the 10(j)."
"10(j)" refers to a section of the Endangered Species Act that allows "experimental nonessential" releases of endangered species. By switching from safe harbor to experimental nonessential, the Fish and Wildlife Service effectively eliminated a key part of the falcon’s protected status under the Endangered Species Act, relieving private landowners and public-land managers alike of any obligation to protect the bird’s habitat.
Chalcraft was furious. She believed that by giving up its power to protect aplomado habitat, her agency was potentially throwing the birds back into the circumstances that had led to their extirpation in the first place. But her opinion, along with those of many other scientists, was swept aside. Frustrated, she soon left New Mexico, taking a substantial pay cut to work as a state biologist in Idaho.
Why did the Fish and Wildlife Service override the opinions of its own scientists? Someone had obviously intervened at the last moment. That intervention can be traced back to a surprising source: a small but powerful nonprofit conservation organization that has quietly worked for three decades to recover birds of prey. The organization is called the Peregrine Fund.
To get to the Peregrine Fund’s headquarters, follow West Flying Hawk Lane out into the grey-green sagebrush on the eastern edge of Boise, Idaho. There, on 200 rolling acres, you’ll find an interpretive center called the World Center for Birds of Prey, along with the Fund’s business office and library. Hidden behind a large fence and a restricted access sign are the hangar-like buildings that house the Fund’s breeding programs, where about 200 condors and falcons live and produce young that will eventually be released into the wild.
The philosophical heart of the Peregrine Fund lies in "The Archives of Falconry," a building whose drab, office-building exterior belies its impressive interior. Pedestals hold sleek bronze statues and mounted specimens of birds of prey. Paintings of gyrfalcons and peregrines gleam from the walls, reminiscent of the portraits of wealthy donors found in university halls and libraries. And locked, glass-fronted bookcases hold shelves of volumes — the oldest dating back to 1575 — documenting the age-old relationship between man and falcon.
Curator and archivist Kent Carnie says that from the earliest days, falconry — the practice of using trained raptors to hunt doves, grouse and even foxes — was a sport of the aristocracy. It was practiced in the Middle East and in China at least 3,000 years ago, and by 600 A.D., it had reached Britain, where it gained a huge following among the nobility.