At the October meeting, Jenny argued that the aplomados’ reappearance could be considered "accidental." He said that he had talked to Jamie Rappaport-Clark, then director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, about an experimental nonessential release. But the response from Fish and Wildlife was an unequivocal "no."

The following month, Jennifer Fowler-Propst, the field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s New Mexico Ecological Services field office, sent a memo to the regional director. "The New Mexico Ecological Services Office does not agree that application of ‘experimental, non-essential’ is appropriate to either the legal or biological aspects of such a reintroduction," she wrote. "The long term solution to aplomado recovery is not simply to release falcons but to identify, protect, and manage for healthy grassland ecosystems. ..."

For the next few years, the aplomado working group continued to meet. The agency biologists seemed to have overruled the Peregrine Fund, or at least to have compromised with it, agreeing to conduct safe harbor releases rather than wait for the birds to return on their own.

As late as Jan. 17, 2002, at yet another working group meeting, agency staffers made it clear that they did not believe an experimental nonessential release would be appropriate. But just a few months later, the agency did its "one-eighty." Chalcraft, the lead biologist, got the order to put aside her safe harbor draft and write a plan for an experimental nonessential release.

According to a Fish and Wildlife Service employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, the Peregrine Fund had met with Steve Williams, then head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, in Washington, D.C. The Fund persuaded Williams to direct Dale Hall, then regional director of the Southwest Region of Fish and Wildlife, to switch to experimental nonessential.

Williams, who now heads a "wise-use" group called the Wildlife Management Institute, says he doesn’t remember the meeting. Peter Jenny acknowledges meeting with Williams, but denies asking him to change the Southwest Region’s policy. Dale Hall, now Fish and Wildlife Service director in Washington, D.C., did not return calls for this story.

But Tom Cade, the Peregrine Fund’s president emeritus, confirms the meeting, saying he believes in "telling the story straight." The Peregrine Fund, which had wanted to release aplomados in New Mexico for 10 years, was getting impatient with the Fish and Wildlife Service. "We eventually did talk to the secretary of the Interior and the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service — both of them — in Washington D.C., and said we weren’t getting anywhere," he says. "And they did give Dale Hall a direction to speed the (experimental nonessential) process up."

 

Why did the Peregrine Fund believe that releasing falcons with fewer protections would be better for the birds? When asked, most staffers simply reply that the Fund "didn’t want another spotted owl."

Grainger Hunt, a biologist who worked on the first captive aplomado breeding program in the 1980s and now works with the Peregrine Fund on both condors and aplomados, says some environmental groups wanted to use the falcon to stop oil and gas drilling on Otero Mesa.

The 1.2 million-acre mesa, which sprawls along the Texas border, is the largest segment of Chihuahuan Desert grassland left in the United States. "The Peregrine Fund just didn’t want to create a situation for aplomados where they were really unpopular, and I think that would have happened if the average guy couldn’t do things. For example, the oil and gas thing," he says.

"Of course, the development of oil and gas would be horrible" for Otero, Hunt adds. But "the full protection of the Endangered Species Act hurts the bird more than helps it … because then everyone ends up thinking that the ESA is a roadblock to hold things up."

These concerns are not unwarranted. The Endangered Species Act is under fire, and the law’s supporters are desperate to prove that it still works. By urging safe harbor and experimental nonessential releases, the Peregrine Fund has garnered support from some of the act’s most ardent critics, including Republican Sens. Pete Domenici, N.M., and Larry Craig, Idaho.

There’s also the danger that reintroduced species will be targeted by vengeful landowners and land-users; Mexican gray wolves have been shot almost as quickly as the Fish and Wildlife Service has been able to reintroduce them. "If people wanted to, they could kill all of our condors in probably a week," says the Fund’s Bill Heinrich.

And captive-bred falcons can adapt to habitat their wild counterparts shunned. Jenny points to the peregrine falcons that now roost on New York City high-rises. The birds once preyed on now-extinct passenger pigeons, says Jenny; today they feast on park pigeons. "You have to think about contemporary habitat," he says. "When you start thinking about traditional habitat or historic habitat, that is interesting from an academic standpoint, but that is old, just a snapshot in time."

When the Peregrine Fund recovered the Mauritius kestrel, found only on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, it did not restore the species’ habitat. The kestrel declined when its forest home, and the geckos it preyed on, were lost to agriculture. The Fund trained its captive-born kestrels to eat rodents and non-native lizards common in the fields, and to range into sugar cane and pineapple plantations, places the wild kestrels would not inhabit. In effect, the Fund speeded up the kestrel’s adaptation, which allowed it to survive.

But the troubled condor reintroduction shows that there’s a limit to the miracles that the Peregrine Fund can work. In 1996, the Fund began to reintroduce condors north of the Grand Canyon. It was well documented that lead poisoning was one of the main causes of the condor’s near extinction: The birds are scavengers, and the dead animals and gut piles they eat are often laden with lead from bullets. Rather than confront the underlying problem, the Fund fed the first condors animal carcasses they knew were clean. Eventually, however, the birds had to find food on their own, and they quickly ran into trouble. Between 2000 and 2004 in Arizona, 28 condors, more than half the state’s population, had to be captured — most of them more than once — for chelation therapy, to clear their blood of lead.

Grainger Hunt defends the Fund’s approach. "Let’s say that you haven’t done any releases in Arizona. You call for the complete banning of lead so you can release the condors," he says. "The probability of that occurring is like zero — the evidence is not good enough." The Fund hoped to solve the problem by encouraging hunters to use non-lead ammunition.

Lead-exposure rates have gone down since 2005, probably because the state has given away lead-free ammunition to deer hunters on the Kaibab Plateau. Still, two condors died from lead poisoning in 2005, and two more in 2006. The Peregrine Fund’s Chris Parrish, head of the Arizona condor program, calls the situation unsustainable. "These (chelation) treatments are far from a solution," he says. "The solution is getting lead out of the range of the condor."

The condor program breaks some of the basic tenets of endangered species science, says Vicky Meretsky, a  conservation biologist at the University of Indiana who co-authored a paper criticizing the program, published in 2000 in the journal Conservation Biology. "You don’t do releases until you’ve taken care of the factors that caused the species to wink out," she says.

Tom Cade agrees that more has to be done, but says that any efforts to ban lead shot should be based on protecting both human and ecological health. "I’d hate for the condor to bear the weight for this stuff," he says.

But Carrie Chalcraft argues that at some point, you have to address the root cause of species decline, whether it is lead shot or loss of habitat — even if it hurts the species’ popularity. In the case of the aplomado, she says some evidence suggests that the birds can coexist with ranching, though she has her doubts about oil and gas development. She believes that both industries need to be properly managed in order to maintain grassland habitat. And that is something that is much more likely to happen if the Fish and Wildlife Service has some authority in the matter.

"When you have a critter whose main threat to their existence is habitat loss, you have a problem," she says, "and it’s an unfortunate reality that most people have to be forced to do what’s right for the species."