A Wing and a Prayer

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

Indeed, Craig and other government biologists -- as well as some private birding groups, such as the Audubon Society -- have argued that the captive-breeding program made collection of wild falcons obsolete, that wild peregrines need never again be taken.

"What bothers me is that we're going through all these machinations to determine whether the population can handle the loss of a few birds," Craig says. "But my difficulty with it is that there is no need. Captive breeding is the future of the sport; there are plenty of birds out there."

Because taking wild peregrines has been illegal for nearly thirty years, he suggests, most of today's falconers have grown up with the idea of trapping wild birds as little more than a romantic notion, not a reality. Moreover, the taking of other raptors -- red-tailed hawks and goshawks, for example -- for use in hunting is still legal. In fact, Craig notes, "Raptors are the only wildlife permitted to be removed from the wild."

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

Technically, that's not true, falconers respond. Each year, thousands of animals are removed from the wild by humans: It's known as hunting. And falconers say they are the hardest-working, least-impacting hunters in the business.

"We spend more time in the field than any other sport, and we take home the least quarry," says Grenfell. (Much of falconry is catch-and-release; most falconers try to get to the fallen prey and free it before their birds kill it.)

Colorado was the first state in the country to recognize falconry as a field sport -- and thus subject to regulation. Today falconry is probably the most regulated hunting sport in the country. Like other hunters, falconers must be licensed with the state wildlife division. Unlike other hunters, however, they must also be registered with the federal government.

And the oversight doesn't stop there. Beginning falconers are first registered as "apprentices" and must train under an experienced falconer for two years, during which time they may fly only red-tail and Kestrel hawks. After two years, with the recommendation of their trainer, they may move up to what is known as "general falconer," a designation that entitles them to use different birds. Only after five years of supervised hunting do they become "master falconers" permitted to hunt with peregrines.

Even in less-supervised hunting sports, the taking of a once-depleted species is not unprecedented. Enderson points to the state's moose population, whose reintroduction to Colorado coincided almost exactly with that of the peregrine.

Although a stray moose occasionally would wander into Colorado from Wyoming, the largest members of the deer family were sighted only rarely in this state. Many biologists suspected the population would rebound naturally, but in 1978 the DOW decided to give the species some help. Twelve moose were moved from Utah to just outside of Walden. The following year, another dozen were relocated from Wyoming.

As soon as it was clear that the population was taking hold, the DOW began issuing hunting licenses for moose. In 1985, five hunting licenses were issued. But as the number of moose grew -- 100 more moose were relocated to southern Colorado in 1991 and 1992 -- so did the number of licenses. This year, over 8,000 hunters applied to harvest a moose. With the moose population hovering at close to 1,000, the DOW issued 129 licenses.

And other states are once again permitting the harvest of small numbers of peregrines. Last year, both Arizona and Utah allowed falconers to trap young birds for use as hunters.

Although Tony Head was too young to harvest birds before the peregrine became endangered, he's ready to start now that the bird is back. The DOW doesn't require that elk hunters harvest only domesticated elk, he points out; why should peregrines be any different?

"This is a renewable resource," he says. "The peregrine falcon has recovered. Falconers have waited thirty years for this moment."

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