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RAPTORS WRAP UP A GOOD YEAR

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The bad news was a hatchless peregrine clutch this summer in downtown Salt Lake City.

The good news is that the endangered raptors are waging such a strong comeback they're about to be stricken from the federal endangered-species list."It's time now to move onto something else," said Clayton M. White, a Brigham Young University zoology professor specializing in ornithology.

White and others say Utah's peregrines in recent years have flourished after their near demise two decades ago. Their comeback has been nothing short of spectacular, especially in southern Utah, and has raised public environmental consciousness in Utah's northern urban centers.

"They educated people about larger problems . . . human population, habitat use, lack of stewardship," said White. "These kind of hallmark, flagship species are very, very critical because they can signal that something larger is going on."

Utah hosts some 150 pairs of peregrine falcons during the birds' warm-weather nesting months, according to wildlife biologists. The number seems minuscule considering the surface area of the state - that's one adult for every 181,000 acres.

But it's huge in the context of modern history. In 1981, almost a decade after the Nixon administration put peregrines in the endangered category, Utah had only eight known pairs. Nationally, there were about 300.

Federal protection saved the birds, which number almost 2,000 around the country and are now considered an ongoing wildlife-management success story, even if not every chapter ends happily.

One sad saga came to a close earlier this summer when a female falcon failed to hatch any eggs from a batch laid in a manmade nesting box on the east side of the First Security Bank building in downtown Salt Lake City.

The bird lost her original mate - and their clutch of eggs - but mated a few weeks later with another bird. That male also disappeared, and because peregrine eggs require constant incubation in a weeks-long, tag-team drill shared by mother and father, no eggs hatched, again.

It was only the second such failure in a 13-year string of downtown falcon nestings.

The female has since disappeared as well, presumably gone south with the others. The migratory birds winter between Baja Mexico and Argentina.

And as the species is re-established and perennial patterns are followed, springtime always offers new hope, said Bob Walters, an urban wildlife specialist for the state's Division of Wildlife Resources.

"They have an affinity for the natal site," which is another way of saying that the several peregrines that have hatched in tall-building sites in Salt Lake City are inclined sooner or later to come back home to nest.

Walters said ornithologists in February will start looking for returned birds, always a popular attraction with downtown office workers.

Robert Benton, a Salt Lake-based wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the resurgence is almost without controversy, unlike some instances of species re-establishment that have drawn the ire of agriculture and development communities.

"There's nothing I know of right now," said Benton, though he noted past conflict in which some farmers objected to federal restrictions on pesticide spraying in order to protect such birds.

But Benton said an alternate form of pest control, aimed especially at wingless grasshoppers known as Mormon crickets, effectively uses the now-popular "bran bait" strategy that specifically targets nuisance insects.

White said peregrines remain unpopular among those who raise pigeons, however, because pigeons are falcon fodder. As recently as 1972, Tazmania offered a $100 bounty on peregrines, said White, as part of a tradition of persecuting the birds.

Though two Western states - Oregon and New Mexico - oppose the proposal to remove peregines from the endangered list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated that the change is imminent.

All but about a dozen pairs of Utah's peregrines are found south of the San Rafael Swell, along high cliffs and in remote canyons of the Colorado Plateau in the southern and southwestern parts of the state.

A federal ban on the once-widely used pesticide DDT has helped feed the recovery of peregrines and other birds, said Benton.

"They're popping up all over the place now, which is what we want," said Benton.