A Wing and a Prayer

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

On a brilliant Indian-summer afternoon outside of Morrison, Gordon Grenfell unhoods his Barbary falcon. The bird rouses -- shakes its feathers in preparation for flight -- and then, suddenly, in a flurry of motion, swoops off Grenfell's leather glove and over the field, skimming low across the brown grass. A thin wire, a tracking device, dangles from its left leg.

After a few moments, Grenfell blows a high-pitched whistle, and the bird turns in a wide arc like a boomerang and heads back. It bears down on him, and then, at the last moment, veers left and slams into a leather pouch holding a bloody quail wing that Grenfell is dangling from his right hand.

Grenfell paid about $1,200 to acquire Zeppelin from a Colorado Springs breeder. He's already plowed dozens of hours into training him, first on a short leash, then a longer one, and then none at all. Soon, Zeppelin will be ready for a real hunt. He will soar hundreds of feet above the earth, wait for Grenfell's dog to flush a pheasant or a quail, then plunge toward the prey at a speed of up to 200 miles per hour.

By that time, Grenfell will have spent several hundred hours more on training and conditioning his falcon.

It will all be worthwhile, too. "That's what we live to see," he says. "There's nothing like it, and you never get tired of it."

But as much as he enjoys Zeppelin, Grenfell can't have the bird he really wants.

Last month the Colorado Hawking Club, of which Grenfell is president, again petitioned the Colorado Division of Wildlife for permission to take young peregrine falcons out of the wild for use in their sport. Although a decision is pending, the wildlife agency is unlikely to approve the request, at least for the next couple of years.

The stated reasons are technical and legal. Both sides toss around terms like "oscillating productivity" and "site occupancy." Yet the real issue is philosophical and centers on who really owns the state's wildlife, what its purpose is, and who decides how it may be used. Ultimately, the logic used to determine who owns the peregrines could affect the entire future of hunting.

The recent history of the American peregrine falcon is at once one of the great tragedies of man's interaction with nature and one of his most powerful triumphs.

As a result of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which thinned peregrine eggs to the point that they could not even hold their own young, by 1972 the American peregrine was on the brink of extinction. The bird had virtually disappeared from the Eastern half of the United States. In the West, biologists counted fewer than four dozen occupied nesting sites.

The decline in Colorado's peregrine population mirrored the nation's. In 1972, when the bird was officially declared an endangered species, only eleven pairs could be found in this state. By 1979, that number had plunged to a scant four breeding pairs.

The bird's precipitous decline quickly inspired a unique partnership between the government, whose job it was to make sure threatened animals did not disappear, and falconers, who loved the birds -- and, more important, had some of them in their possession.

Attempts to breed peregrines in captivity dated as far back as World War II. Yet by the time Jerry Enderson, a Colorado biologist, began methodically trying it in the 1960s, nobody had done it with any real regularity or success.

In addition to being a respected biologist at Colorado College, Enderson was an avid falconer from way back. He'd started in 1951, as a freshman in high school. "It was a chance encounter," Enderson recalls. "I was on my uncle's farm in Iowa, and he'd told me to take a shotgun and shoot a Kestrel hawk. Instead I found a nestling and kept it." He still uses the birds today to hunt ducks.

Enderson was lucky enough to make his hobby his vocation as well. Spurred on by a sense of urgency after the peregrine was designated as endangered, in 1973 he began trying to breed the birds in earnest, using an artificial-insemination technique he and another biologist had developed. That year he produced four peregrines. Although one died from the herpes virus, the others lived. The next year Enderson produced five more peregrines, and five more the year after that.

In 1979, the DOW threw itself into the rescue effort, donating a few hundred thousand dollars for a research station to be built in Fort Collins, just south of the Budweiser factory. (The station was relocated to Idaho in the mid-1980s.) Thirty-six lofts were constructed for the peregrines. Enderson donated his birds; over the years, one of them, a male named B.C. after the comic strip, fathered hundreds of offspring.

Without the participation of both the government -- which supplied money and, as the years went by, expertise and labor -- and private falconers such as Enderson, who provided birds and early knowledge on breeding, the peregrine probably would have died out altogether. Instead, the species has made a rapid and astonishing comeback.

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.

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."

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."

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."

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help