A Wing and a Prayer

The peregrine falcon is back -- and falconers want to get their hands on the bird.

Over the next decade and a half, more than 400 peregrines were released into the wild in Colorado. Some were introduced by "hacking," in which a box with young birds just starting to fledge was placed on a cliff once used by wild peregrines. The box was stocked with enough thawed quail meat to sustain the birds for several weeks, after which those birds not killed by owls and eagles became independent.

Other peregrines were introduced by "fostering." Jerry Craig, the DOW's chief raptor biologist, risked life and limb rappelling down cliffs to nesting sites, from which he removed pesticide-thinned eggs and replaced them with dummies. The real eggs were then rushed to the captive breeding station in Idaho, usually by Enderson's private airplane. After the young had hatched, they were flown back to the original site and placed inside the nest, to be raised by their wild parents.

Over the course of those years, Enderson estimates he flew more than 57,000 miles in the service of recovering the peregrine. But the mileage paid off. Amazingly, by 1990, a species that only twenty years earlier had teetered on the brink of extinction had recovered to the point where human intervention was no longer necessary for the population to thrive: The peregrine was self-sustaining. In 1998, Colorado removed the bird from its endangered-species list. The following year, the federal government followed suit. Today, somewhere between 120 and 160 pairs of the birds live in Colorado.

Ready for takeoff: Gordon Grenfell and Zeppelin, his Barbary falcon.
Ready for takeoff: Gordon Grenfell and Zeppelin, his Barbary falcon.

Falconers worked hard to save the peregrine because they cared deeply for the birds -- yet they also were working to rescue their sport. The captive-breeding program also paid off for falconry. Since 1981, Colorado falconers have acquired 168 peregrines raised in captivity for use in hunting. In fact, the entire stock of hunting birds now in use was bred by man.

Many government biologists and private hunters share not only a love of the animals they follow, but also a strong sense of entitlement to them. So it wasn't surprising that a question of ownership eventually arose. While it was in a spirit of cooperation that private falconers and public biologists worked together to save the peregrine falcon, once the bird was out of danger, the friendly collaboration began to fray.

By 1999, the falconers were more than ready for some payback. "Falconers are predominantly responsible for the recovery of these birds," says Tony Head, a thirty-year falconer and past president of the Colorado Hawking Club. "People have devoted their lives to this.

"The peregrine is the Cadillac of falcons," he continues. "What they do naturally is what falconers look for in a bird. We should not be penalized now because the bird was once endangered."

The situation is more complicated than that, Craig responds. While the DOW recognizes that private organizations helped save the birds, without the government's involvement, not much would have happened. "If you're talking about the recovery of the falcon, it was the taxpayers of the state of Colorado, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management -- lots of people," he says. "For the falconers to say 'We recovered them' is unfair to everybody who worked on this."

In short, he concludes, "We don't owe falconers a damn thing."

The dispute has stalled recent attempts by sport falconers to resume harvest of wild peregrines. In 1998, when Colorado declared the birds saved, the sport falconers agreed to wait for five years while state biologists monitored the peregrines to make sure their comeback was genuine.

But a year later, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the bird officially recovered, the falconers began pushing to harvest peregrines sooner. A federal study released this past April, which concluded that a 5 percent harvest of the peregrine would not affect the bird's population, bolstered their case.

So at recent meetings of the Colorado Wildlife Commission, falconers have petitioned to begin removing wild peregrines for use in hunting. At first, the Colorado Hawking Club requested 5 percent of the population, or about ten birds, as recommended by the federal study. More recently -- "because of political sensitivity," Head says -- they modified that to only four birds.

Each time, Craig has recommended that the falconers wait. "It's premature. We're only three years into monitoring," he says, pointing out that last year the peregrine's productivity dropped because of a cold, wet spring. "We nearly lost them. We just got them back. Why is there this headlong rush to begin taking them again? Why not wait another two years?"

Yet Enderson suspects that at its foundation, the issue is not one of numbers, but of the birds' ultimate ownership. "It's not a biology question," he says. "The loss of a few birds each year would be negligible. And we expect variation in productivity. Everyone seems transfixed on measuring reproduction to the second decimal point, when what really matters is balance."

Rather, Enderson continues, what seems to be driving government biologists is a philosophy that's at the core of every wildlife bureaucrat. "When you work with peregrines that long, you become custodial," he says. "You begin to think of them as a private component in your life, and the fact that they're public property is forgotten."

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