Today, there are roughly 3,000 falconers in the United States, many of whom belong to a licensing and advocacy organization called the North American Falconers Association. The association holds annual meets, or hunting parties, open only to members and their immediate families. Its members fight to ensure that falconers retain some very unusual privileges: State and federal law bans capturing most wildlife, and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits killing or possessing any migratory bird species other than ducks and geese, with a few exceptions for educational purposes. But a special regulation passed in 1976 allows qualified falconers with permits to collect young from their nests. And falconers enjoy extended hunting seasons — an average of six months long — that other hunters can only dream of.
While hunting, a falconer carries his or her bird on a leather-sheathed forearm. The bird’s eyes are covered with a small leather cap called a hood, to keep it calm until the time is right. Then, the falconer takes off the hood and releases the bird, letting it soar and seek its prey. Peregrine falcons dive at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, often killing their quarry on impact. A well-trained falcon brings the catch uneaten to its master, who rewards it with food.
"You are intimately associated with them, but they are still wild birds," says Carnie. "And that’s one of the thrills. There’s a bond that develops between a falconer and the bird, and it’s just indescribable. It’s extremely close."
This intimacy can blur some normally clear distinctions. "There’s kind of a thin line, I guess, a nebulous line, between what should be called domesticated and what should be called wild," says Peregrine Fund founder Tom Cade. Trained falcons, Cade says, fall in "an in-between category."
Cade and his two co-founders — all falconers — created the Peregrine Fund so they could breed endangered peregrine falcons and release them into the wild. The birds had vanished entirely from the Eastern United States and from most of the West as well, thanks to DDT. The pesticide — which was banned in the U.S. in 1972 — thinned the eggshells of peregrines and other raptors, making them so fragile that the parent birds broke them when sitting in the nest. The release effort was an astonishing success: There are now more peregrines in the West than there were before DDT.
The peregrine’s comeback made Tom Cade a legend. Today, his white eyebrows and hearing aid reveal his 78 years, but his brown eyes are still sharp, and every word he speaks is uttered with matter-of-fact certainty. Asked how the Fund chooses its projects, Cade, now president emeritus, says simply, "We do things that are doable, and that we are experts in."
The Peregrine Fund, which for 2006 boasted an annual budget of $6.8 million, has become an endangered species recovery powerhouse. Newspaper articles praise the Fund’s work with condors and falcons. Scientists consistently note the group’s golden touch in breeding birds of prey.
Like The Nature Conservancy, the Peregrine Fund prefers to work behind the scenes. "If we can figure out a way to recover a species without causing a lot of problems for land users, that is the route to go," says the group’s acting president, Peter Jenny. "Our niche is to recover species with a minimal amount of controversy. … We try to do that in as non-political a way as possible."
But the Peregrine Fund is hardly apolitical. A look at the Fund’s board of directors reveals considerable clout. Lee Bass, the board’s vice chairman, is a billionaire Texas energy mogul and a "Bush Pioneer," someone who has raised at least $100,000 for the president’s political campaigns. Board member Henry Paulson Jr., a Goldman Sachs executive who also chairs The Nature Conservancy’s board, is another Bush Pioneer. This summer, the president appointed him secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
The Peregrine Fund’s connections range beyond the current White House. Every year since 1985, the group has asked Congress for special earmarked funding for its breeding programs — and every year, Congress has obliged. This is not typically how funds are allocated; normally, the Fish and Wildlife Service designates organizations and state programs that will use federal money for species monitoring and recovery. But in the case of the Peregrine Fund, the Service has lost its discretion on who gets the money. Government biologists and Interior Department officials quietly criticize the arrangement, because it prevents the Fish and Wildlife Service from doing its usual oversight.
But the Peregrine Fund knows that in order to get the job done its way, it sometimes needs to go straight to the top.
Unlike the peregrine, the aplomado’s demise largely came before the introduction of DDT. Biologists blamed other factors, primarily habitat loss. Overgrazing throughout the last century had laid waste to the grasslands that harbor flycatchers, blackbirds, meadowlarks and other passerine birds, the aplomado’s primary prey. And with the grasslands went the white-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks and black-shouldered kites whose nests the aplomados re-used.
The aplomado’s slow comeback three decades later may have been due in part to changes in grazing practices, although no one knows for sure. The bird got a boost in Texas in 1993, when the Peregrine Fund began introducing captive-bred birds.
Then, in 1998, the Fund submitted a petition to do the same thing in New Mexico. To discuss different options, the Fish and Wildlife Service convened a working group, which included federal and state biologists, the U.S. Department of Defense (which owns land in falcon habitat), the Turner Endangered Species Fund (whose Armendaris Ranch was to be used as a release site), and the Peregrine Fund.
The first option was to do nothing: Allow the birds to return slowly on their own, under the full protection of the Endangered Species Act. But neither the Peregrine Fund nor the Turner Endangered Species Fund wanted to pursue that option. Ted Turner, the media mogul who was busy bringing back bison and wolves to his vast Western holdings, was eager to get a native falcon back on the landscape. The Peregrine Fund was breeding aplomados in Boise and needed to do something with them.
At one of the first aplomado working group meetings, in March 1998, Peter Jenny said the Fund did not want any falcon releases without some assurance that ranchers would not be forced to change their grazing practices. Jenny talked about the group’s experience reintroducing falcons in Texas under the safe harbor program, which shields private landowners from new rules and regulations if they allow endangered species to be released on their land. He mentioned that he had recently "schmoozed" then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt about safe harbor agreements, according to minutes from the meeting.
By October of that year, however, the Peregrine Fund had changed its tune. Jenny told the working group that the Fund would seek an experimental nonessential release instead. He had realized that safe harbor would be controversial in New Mexico. Even if the birds were released on private land under those rules, they would gain full endangered species protection as soon as they flew onto public lands — and unlike the almost entirely privately owned Texas ranchland where the aplomado releases took place, the 28 million acres of Chihuahuan Desert grassland habitat in New Mexico is two-thirds publicly owned. Before approving new grazing permits or oil and gas leases, land managers would have to consult with Fish and Wildlife to make sure that the falcons would not be harmed.
In response to Jenny’s proposal, agency field staff replied that they supported a reintroduction under the right conditions. But they also stressed that their priority was protecting and managing habitat — something they would have very little say in if the birds were classified as experimental nonessential.
Besides, the falcons were already returning on their own, and there was some question whether the experimental nonessential rule was a legal approach. The rule was designed to provide a foot in the door for species in areas where they had been completely wiped out.