Bred for success

The nonprofit Peregrine Fund has mastered the captive breeding of birds of prey. But has its single-minded focus blinded it to the importance of habitat?

  • Aplomado falcons bred by the Peregrine Fund before their release into the wild

    R Taplin Moore
  • A Peregrine Fund technician checks a day-old chick at the World Center for Birds of Prey

    The Peregine Fund
  • Tom Cade, Peregrine Fund co-founder

  • Raising an aplomado: An incubator holds aplomado falcon eggs, rotating them hourly and maintaining a temperature of 99.5 degrees

    The Peregrine Fund
  • A days-old aplomado chick

    The Peregrine Fund
  • An aplomado on the wing

    The Peregrine Fund
  • Carrie Chalcraft, biologist

  • Young aplomados ready for release at Armendaris Ranch in New Mexico

    Ken Stinnett, photo courtesy Armendaris Ranch
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...