On Aug. 3, 2006, the Peregrine Fund unleashed 11 aplomado falcons on the Armendaris Ranch, about 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences. In the brilliant desert stillness, about 60 onlookers, including New Mexico officials and various Fish and Wildlife higher-ups, gathered to witness the beginning of another endangered species success story. Peregrine Fund staffers opened the wooden boxes holding the birds, and the 40-day-old falcons flopped out onto a wooden platform, about 10 feet above the ground. Some flew tentatively out into the open air. One fluttered over and landed on a nearby yucca, awkwardly struggling to perch among the spiny leaves.
The 300,000-acre ranch looks like the perfect place for aplomados: Old-growth yuccas punctuate a desert grassland grazed by bison instead of cows. "A ranch has to pay its bills," says ranch manager Tom Waddell. But this ranch has another goal as well: the re-establishment of native, threatened and endangered species, and the creation of a place where researchers can work in a native Chihuahuan Desert grassland.
So far, the aplomados are doing well; at last count, all 11 of the birds were alive. But beyond the boundaries of the ranch, the future is uncertain. Out at the fence line, on the boundary between Turner’s property and federal land, the difference between two landscapes is clear: On the Armendaris side, waves of black grama; on the federal side, miles of mesquite and creosote bush.
Because the aplomados are here under the experimental nonessential rule, the Fish and Wildlife Service has no power to alter grazing practices to protect them. Nor will it be able to force aplomado habitat protections on Otero Mesa, when oil and gas companies begin to drill wells on the 250,000 acres that the BLM has opened for energy exploration.
Still, Jenny is optimistic. Falcons are opportunists, quick to adapt, he says; perhaps the aplomados can thrive without their traditional grassland habitat.
In fact, because the Fund has perfected the technology to breed birds in captivity, it is unlikely that the aplomado falcon — or the California condor, or a host of other birds of prey — will ever go extinct. The birds could be released in perpetuity, re-seeded like an annual crop of flowers.
That’s exactly what the Fund has done with the condors, and with aplomado falcons in Texas: The group has released 1,257 aplomados in that state over the past decade; only about 100 of the birds have paired up for mating.
For Carrie Chalcraft, the New Mexico release epitomizes the problems that underlie the relationship between humans and wildlife. "The catch," she says, "always comes back to that we live in a world that doesn’t prioritize endangered species."
Almost everyone agrees that the Peregrine Fund is great at what it does; its methods of peregrine breeding broke scientific ground and have led to successful captive breeding techniques for many other birds. But the Fund’s approach leads to the same recommendation every time: release, release, release. And the group’s politics, which tend to be anti-regulation and anti-controversy, mean that it refuses to take even basic stands on habitat protection for the birds it breeds with such care.
If the aplomado does thrive again in New Mexico, in the desert beyond the Armendaris Ranch’s fence lines, it will not be because we humans have changed our ways. Rather, it will be another example of nature’s ability to adapt to the changes we have already made. And that’s not something that always happens.
Back on the ranch, Tom Waddell returns to the aplomado release site after a drive around the property. "You’re going to see an aplomado today," he chuckles, as he spots two recently released falcons perched in the shade of a wooden release structure.
Climbing out of his truck, Waddell slowly approaches one of the falcons. The bird stirs. Waddell walks a little closer. The falcon suddenly lifts, tail extended, wings beating strongly against the desert sky. It alights on a tall yucca about 10 yards away, and sits.
The author, who just finished a High Country News internship, is working on a master’s degree in social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
The Endangered Species Act’s categories of endangered, threatened, experimental essential, experimental nonessential, and safe harbor release defined.