Tuesday, November 21, 2006

ENV: Aplomados Return Part 47

Plan to save rare falcons takes flight
By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, Associated Press writer

ARMENDARIS RANCH, N.M. -- Squinting, the eyes strain to see past the mesquite and yucca to catch a glimpse of a small, striking falcon that has captured the attention of wildlife experts, environmentalists and a curious rancher.

"One, two, three, four, five. There's five right here," an excited Tom Waddell says as he keeps one eye on the bumpy two-track road and the other on the northern aplomado falcons.

Waddell, who runs the Armendaris Ranch for media mogul Ted Turner, marvels at the endangered birds as some of them dive down in pursuit of grasshoppers and other insects. "They're so beautiful," he says.

That Waddell can hardly contain his excitement is no wonder: He's been waiting for them to take to southern New Mexico's skies for more than a decade.

Eleven captive-bred falcons were released on the Armendaris in August as part of a plan by the nonprofit Peregrine Fund, Turner's Endangered Species Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the birds to their historic range.

The falcons have been successfully reintroduced in parts of Texas, and Angel Montoya, a biologist with the Peregrine Fund, says all indications are that the birds will be successful in New Mexico.

It's been more than 12 weeks since the release and the birds are making themselves at home on the 360,000-acre ranch east of Truth or Consequences.

The Armendaris, along the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert, offers grama grass, yucca, mesquite and insects. Another plus is the lack of predators, such as raccoons, owls and coyotes.

Waddell, a retired wildlife biologist, says the Armendaris is perfect since it offers grassland that has been untouched for decades as well as lightly grazed parcels and state land on the other side of the fence that has been heavily grazed over the years.

The falcons can choose their habitat, he says.

As the sun sinks lower in the sky, Waddell and Montoya climb a ladder to the top of a platform where the birds were first released. It's here where Waddell puts out dinner -- specially bred coturnix quail -- for the falcons who are still hungry after a day of chasing grasshoppers and dragonflies.

The five falcons that Waddell first spotted are joined by another pair as they wait in the distance.

"So what you're looking at here are seven little biologists," Waddell says. "And they're cheap biologists -- they only cost a few quail in the evening."

"No, really," he says, turning more serious. "They are going to fly around and teach us about the aplomado falcon."

The falcons, born in captivity at the Peregrine Fund's breeding facility in Idaho, were released under a special provision of the Endangered Species Act.

Under the so-called 10-J rule, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the birds as a nonessential experimental population. That means any aplomado falcons in New Mexico and neighboring Arizona are no longer considered endangered but continue to have some protections. For example, it's still illegal to shoot or harass the birds or to take their eggs.

Montoya, who has been studying the falcons for about 15 years, says the rule gives managers an ability for hands-on management.

"I think the people with the (endangered Mexican gray) wolf will tell you the same thing," he says. "Having a 10-J on the wolf allows them to manage those wolves. If it was fully protected you couldn't just go in there and move wolves around.

"It allows us the same opportunities with the aplomado falcon, it allows us to adjust our program and adjust it quickly."

But the change has its critics.

A coalition of environmental groups is suing the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the designation as an experimental population strips the bird of needed protections and opens the door to activities -- like oil and gas drilling -- that could compromise habitat.

"To have them reintroduced at a point in time when there is more evidence than ever before that falcons exist in the wild in New Mexico, it seems to me there is something very sinister going on," says Nicole Rosmarino, conservation director for Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians.

Rosmarino says the agency should have held off for another five to 10 years before releasing any birds to do a more thorough survey. She says it's possible the birds that have been spotted in southern New Mexico -- believed to be part of a population fanning out from northern Mexico -- could begin to re-establish themselves.

"There was just no rush," she says. "The only reason I think they rushed to release the birds is because the ESA (Endangered Species Act) protections are causing a headache for the Bureau of Land Management and big oil and gas."

Environmentalists have been fighting efforts to open Otero Mesa, an area in southern New Mexico that includes North America's largest remaining pieces of Chihuahuan desert grassland, to oil and gas development. They say the area is important habitat for the falcon.

"For us it's about the falcon and the recovery of the falcon in its native habitat and that means protection of that native habitat," Rosmarino says.

But Waddell questions whether the concern of environmentalists is really about getting the bird re-established or stopping development on Otero Mesa at any cost.

Release the birds, he says. "Let's just find out what's real out here, what's really important and then we can make better decisions down the road on how to manage the landscape of the bird."

To watch the birds feeding on the platforms is surreal for Waddell and Montoya. It's something they were doubtful they would ever see during their lifetimes.

"When Ted first bought this ranch he only told me three things," Waddell says. "He said he wanted to put on the black-tailed prairie dogs, aplomado falcons and be ready for buffalo in six months. Those were my orders. Those were my only orders, very simple. It took us 13 years to get to this."

Every year, Turner would ask Waddell about the possibility of releasing the falcon. Despite the politics, bureaucratic red tape and competing agendas, Waddell says his boss told him to stay the course.

For years, Waddell had in his office only a framed illustration of an aplomado and a photo of one. Now, he can head out to the platforms in the evening to catch a glimpse of the real thing.

Still, he can't help but wonder how far along the birds would be had they been released years ago.

Montoya wonders the same thing, but he notes that his group has tried to stay focused on the falcon over the years, not all the other issues surrounding it.

"We don't get involved in lawsuits, we're not out there suing the Fish and Wildlife Service over critical habitat or anything else," he says. "We're working with the birds and trying to get the birds out.

"This landscape has changed over the last 50 to 100 years, and this may or may not be what is important to the birds," he says. "If we release enough birds out there and get them out, we feel the birds will tell us what the habitat is that they need."

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