Bred for success

by Stephanie Paige Ogburn

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.

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.

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."

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.

 

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Terms of endangerment

The Endangered Species Act’s categories of endangered, threatened, experimental essential, experimental nonessential, and safe harbor release defined.

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