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Payback time for falconers: U.S. may ease restrictions

Officials want to allow capture of babies in 10 states

SHARE Payback time for falconers: U.S. may ease restrictions

TUCSON, Ariz. — Witnessing the aerial acrobatics of a trained raptor snatching another bird in its talons at 200 mph is a unique experience that Bruce Taubert calls "more of a lifestyle than it is a thrill."

Taubert, the Arizona Game and Fish Department's assistant director for wildlife management, has been a falconer. And he's excited about federal and state wildlife officials' plans to allow the capture of some newborn peregrine falcons in Arizona and nine other states for falconers and for scientific study.

"I think it's the best thing since sliced bread," Taubert said.

A year after Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt removed the peregrine from the endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking comment on its proposal, which was released last week in a draft environmental assessment.

The peregrine falcon, one of several species of hawks that falconers can train to hunt and kill wild quarry, first received federal protection in 1970, three years before Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. It became one of the first animals listed.

At the birds' lowest point in 1975, there were 324 nesting pairs in North America. Wildlife officials lay much of the blame on the pesticide DDT, which prevented peregrine chicks from hatching properly.

The bird became an environmental success story after DDT was banned and captive breeding programs helped put more than 6,000 peregrines back into the wild.

Now, officials want to reward falconers for their efforts more than two decades ago to save the species by providing healthy birds to use in breeding programs.

State wildlife agencies proposed the 5 percent capture level of young birds.

"They basically are realizing a return on their investment," said Robert Mesta, national coordinator for Fish and Wildlife's peregrine recovery program. "Falconers love the birds not only for falconry but also as wild birds. They stepped forward and donated the birds they had."

If the Fish and Wildlife proposal is approved, Arizona would allow the taking of only young birds — up to about a month old — that haven't really flown yet.

Other states could allow the taking of older birds.

It would be the first time in 27 years that falconers would be able to take newborn birds not bred in captivity.

"We've said this really is up to the states," Fish and Wildlife spokesman Chris Tollefson said in Washington.

Falconry is considered the most regulated hunting sport in the United States, requiring federal and state permits, training and exams. There are about 4,000 falconers nationwide.

The planned federal regulations would require about seven years' experience before falconers could keep a peregrine.

"That is the ultimate bird, most prized by falconers," Mesta said. "It's like the Holy Grail of all falconry birds."

Peregrine falcons weigh about 16 to 24 ounces, with stiletto-shaped wings spanning 44 inches.

"They're built for speed. In a free fall, they can reach speeds of up to 200 mph." They use their talons to collide with the small birds that are their prey, Mesta said.

Conservatively, there are at least 1,650 known breeding pairs of peregrines nationwide, Mesta said. Other estimates place the population at more than 3,000 pairs.

Peregrines flourish in mountainous areas, nesting high up along cliffs. Arizona's population suffered less than most other states.

The Grand Canyon's cliffs offered favorable habitat, the Colorado River flowing through it drew ample prey and it was distant from agricultural fields laced with DDT residues.