Raptors are our fierce allies. Shame on those who harm them.

 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected]

Birds of prey soar over the human imagination like no other creatures do. Even so, some idiots slaughter them. These birds are vital to the ecosystem of the Great Plains: Owls, hawks and eagles prey on small mammals such as voles and rabbits, as well as on reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates like grasshoppers, which can damage crops. They also eat some smaller birds and carrion.

But it is the raptors' appetite for mice that makes them natural allies for humans. Mice compete with us for wheat, corn, oats, rye, barley and other grains used in cereals, pasta, tortillas -- even beer. In one year, a pair of mice can start a dynasty that includes 908,544 relatives. And in one year, each pair of mice eats eight pounds of grain and spreads waste in another 22 pounds, according to Maggie Engler, founder of the Black Hills Raptor Center in South Dakota.

Because they don't see well, mice mark every step of a journey with urine and excrement so they can sniff their way home. If you've consumed grain in any form, you've likely munched a bit of mouse filth, says Engler, who got a degree in natural resource management 30 years ago.

So humans ought to love mouse eaters. Fortunately, the Great Plains is home to many raptor species, although subdivisions, plowing, highway building and other human activities are reducing their numbers. Populations of the ferruginous hawk, Swainson's hawk, northern harrier, golden eagle and burrowing owl have sharply declined because we use rodenticides and other pesticides, organic chemicals like PCBs, and metals such as mercury and lead. Raptors can also be poisoned if they eat contaminated prey.

I live in western South Dakota in an area rich in raptors, including bald and golden eagles, turkey vultures, ospreys and five kinds of hawks: red-tailed, ferruginous, Swainson's, broad-winged and rough-legged. The state's raptor riches also include five of the North American falcons: the American kestrel, merlin, prairie falcon, peregrine falcon and, in winter months, the gyrfalcon.

Only three accipiters -- hawks with short broad wings and long legs particularly suited to fast flight in wooded areas — live in North America, and South Dakota has all three, the northern goshawk, Cooper's hawk and sharp-shinned hawk, as well as nine nocturnal raptors: great horned, eastern screech, burrowing, long-eared, short-eared, northern saw-whet, flammulated, barn and snowy owls.

All of these birds are our warriors in the unending battle against rodents. Birds of prey, so important to human lives, are protected by federal law, and permission is required even for indigenous people to use feathers for religious rituals.

But for some inexplicable reason, there are people who don't understand that raptors are our partners rather than our enemies or our competitors. In South Dakota last year, for example, a man was caught trapping hawks and owls with pole traps. Then he'd club or shoot the birds to death and throw them into the river.

Now he will have to pay to protect the species he harmed. The poacher's sentence included $17,500 in restitution, a $500 fine, and other costs.

In western South Dakota, Maggie Engler and John Halverson were fundraising to build their rehabilitation and educational facility, the Black Hills Raptor Center (Facebook.com/blackhillsraptorcenter) when they first learned that restitution money might be available to help them out. Engler asked for help from the restitution fund established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and thanks to the combined efforts of that federal agency, as well as the U.S. Attorney's Office and the federal courts, restitution in some raptor poaching cases may now be paid directly to the Black Hills Raptor Center.

"Until we get our facility built and running," Engler says, "volunteers must transport birds several hundred miles." The nearest veterinarians able to treat sick or injured raptors are in Pierre, South Dakota, and Cody, Wyoming. Once up and running, the Raptor Center will be able to treat 100 birds a year, and having a building will also enable the Raptor Center to participate in research about the role of raptors in the environment.

Engler adds, "Helping people realize that they are connected to all other living things is the root of the work we do. Raptors are a fantastic means for us to touch people's hearts and help them realize their connectedness. We're sad that we will gain funds from destruction of raptors, but grateful for the support those fines will provide."

As I sip my beer, I smile, savoring the irony: That poacher now has to help save the birds he was killing. And I'm delighted to know I'll be drinking less mouse pee.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. She is a writer in South Dakota.

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