Thursday, January 31, 2008

Public Comment on Passage Peregrines

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on a draft environmental assessment for the taking of passage peregrine falcons (fledged juveniles on their first migration) for falconry. The comment period closes on 11 February, so there is still time to put your two cents in if you care to.

The issue is important to American falconers, although maybe less urgent to those my age and younger who have never had an opportunity to trap and fly wild peregrines. That opportunity skipped my generation, but there are many still in the sport who remember what fine birds these passage falcons can be.

My friend Jim Ince remembers them fondly, having flown the birds (decades ago, and usually briefly) at snipe and ducks across his native southeast Texas prairie. Jim says the passagers quicken the pace of a hunt, training fast and flying eagerly, and arriving already so competent at their game one has to work quick to serve them or else watch them speed away on their own pursuits.

You don't make a passage peregrine wait, he says.

American falconers have been waiting for the passage peregrine since the days of DDT and the bird's near disappearance. The story of the falcon's return is widely known and cited. But it is also equivocal in its particulars and in the attributions of blame or credit given. Depending on whom you ask, some peregrines were never in danger; others say whole populations went extinct. Who's to thank for the recovery? Everyone---the Service, the Congress, the falconers, the States, hundreds of biologists and thousands of concerned citizens.

Or maybe they would have recovered on their own.

The high note is that peregrines are back and almost common now. They're retaking old hunting grounds continent-wide and kicking prairie falcons out of their squatter's claims. I see them every year here in Baton Rouge, not just on passage in October but all winter along the levees and over my own hunting fields. One of them dumped a half-eaten coot in the middle of a local cow pasture last month, like manna from Heaven to my Harris hawk.

The North American Falconers Association represents the lion's half of the country's falconers. NAFA published its position (broadly supportive, of course, but with many specifics) and distributed that to its members. I am one. So are Steve and several others I know who visit this blog. My statement to the Service is less specific than my club's position; it's maybe a little bit lazy, even anti-intellectual. Certainly unscientific.

My feeling is that of course falconers will want access to as many peregrines as possible---the resource supports, by the Service's own figures, many more to be harvested than the Service proposes to allow. On the other hand, I think it's equally obvious that on principle or because of fear of (actually, the certainty of) lawsuits from various NGOs, the Service will not support so broad a harvest as the resource can sustain.

So it will come to a compromise, which I think is OK. I predict we'll see a limited, highly regulated take of passage peregrine falcons for falconry. I'll be glad for that. So that's what I said:

Dear Chief of Migratory Birds and Associated FWS Staff:

Many thanks to you and to all those who've worked hard to bring the prospect of a migrant peregrine take to the table. You have done so without the falconer's passion (though some among you were and are falconers) but rather on the strength of the best scientific understanding, and for this reason your effort is more sound and more worthwhile.

I support the sustainable harvest of passage peregrine falcons---from all populations available to US falconers---by way of a regulated permitting system for qualified applicants.

I have been a licensed US falconer for more than 20 years and have never flown a peregrine. For me, the bird has always been an icon of a past age and a vague dream of the future. Although I am unlikely to fly a peregrine (passage or otherwise) in the near term, several excellent falconers I know would love such an opportunity and would certainly make the most of it. It would be right and good for them to have that opportunity so long as the peregrine remains in sufficient numbers to allow it.

In short, I believe that all raptor species of sufficient population strength to sustain the (very gentle) harvest pressure applied by falconers should be available for take. In large, falconry is a wholesome and positive activity, one in which I am proud to partake and will be proud to teach to my children.

Your work on behalf of my sport and our (everyone's) shared resource is much appreciated. I leave the specifics of the passage peregrine harvest and its regulation to those better qualified to comment. Suffice it to say that it has my enthusiastic

Send your official comment to:, then post a copy here!


Paul said...

Matt, here's a letter written by Tony Huston, long time falconer, among other claims to fame, here in NM. Wish I was so eloquent...

Dear Sir,

I would very much appreciate it if you would add my name to the list of
those who strongly support allowing falconers to take migrant peregrine
falcons. In fact, when this occurs, it will be one of the great moments
of my life. I will explain.

I've been a falconer for over 45 years. I started in Ireland, moved to
England, and now live in New Mexico. During that time, as we all know,
the peregrine went through a monumental crisis but, largely through the
efforts of falconers and raptor biologists, all American sub-species
with the exception of the Eastern Anatum were saved from extinction and
have since rebounded to such an extent that we can honestly say that
there have never been so many peregrines as there are today. There are
reasons for this which, for the sake of brevity, I won't go into.

There is no sound biological reason to prevent a reasonable harvest. In
fact the magnitude of this environmental triumph will be best
demonstrated by encouraging the kind of co-operation between the
falconry community and regulatory authorities that has led to the eyass
peregrine take – I speak from personal knowledge as, last year, I was
extremely fortunate to be granted the first license by New Mexico Game &
Fish to take one – a tiercel -- in 35 years.

You might ask why one should not be satisfied only with eyasses. Apart
from the data that indicates that falcons in captivity have a higher
survival rate during the first year than those in the wild – and, as
many have suggested, a lot of falconers will release their falcons in
the spring rather than keep them through the moult – the main reason is
that the passage falcon offers a falconry experience unlike any other,
the opportunity to collaborate with a genuinely wild bird, its skills
honed by nature itself, and have a unique hunting experience.

The literature of falconry going back to the 13th. century is full of
the most eloquent descriptions of the superior skills of the passage
falcon over those that have been raised in captivity. I realize that, by
speaking this way, I am going outside the normal strictly-scientific
approach – but you will receive a host of letters in that vein and I
don't want to repeat the same stuff ad nauseam!

Instead I will try to give you a sense of what, for me personally, is at
stake. Falconry has been the passion of my life, my refuge from all that
is stale, boring, monotonous about human existence. Like any vocation,
the deeper I have gone into it, the deeper I want to go. If I were a
skier, it would be the progression from green runs, to blue, to black,
to taking helicopters to the tops of uncharted mountains. Well, the
passage peregrine falcon is the mountain that has been forbidden to me –
for the soundest of reasons – for almost my entire falconry career. But
now those reasons have gone, and I would like to have the poetry of this
experience before I am too old or infirm to fully enjoy it and do it

I speak to you not as a bureaucrat but as a fellow human being. Imagine
being given the possibility of being able to do the thing that you most
love and then some – to play a round of golf at St. Andrews with Tiger
Woods, to have a private dinner with your favorite movie star, to fish
for marlin with Ernest Hemingway....and you get some idea what being
able to take a passage peregrine means to me.

Please, let your objective decision be influenced by the statistics and
biological data, but realize that, in the grander scheme, what you are
doing is allowing one of the most conscientious and dedicated groups on
the planet to fulfill the spiritual ambition of a lifetime, one that
will have no negative effect on the wild population of the creature we
love most and may even benefit it.

Yours sincerely,

Walter A. Huston

Matt Mullenix said...


Steve Bodio said...

Mat, good show. Nice "blonde bird" as we used to call them back east when you could still trap them.

Paul, we probably ought to put Tony up front too-- I'll email and try to get permission.

FYI, he looked down here for his eyas before finding one up north.

Isaac Nichols アイザック ニコルス said...

Thanks for the email link to where we can send in comments. I sent mine in and asked all my family and all my friends who might have a clue (and some that probably don't) to send one in as well.

Matt Mullenix said...

Glad you did, Isaac!

Mark Churchill said...

Nice letters by both Matt and Tony. Mine is still in draft stage; I had considered something very brief like "About damn time!" but opted for something more constructive. It is about damn time, though.

Matt Mullenix said...

Mark please share it here when you're done?


Mark Churchill said...

I can do that; thanks for the invitation. I have a field meet this weekend, and should be packing right now, so it probably won't be until Monday.

Mark Churchill said...

TO: Chief, Division of Migratory Birds
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Dr., Rm. 634
Arlington, Virginia 22203-1610

Re: Draft environmental assessment and management plan for take of migrant Peregrine Falcons from the wild for use in falconry

Dear Sir,

I would like to thank Brian Millsap, George Allen, and other FWS staff who worked on the draft EA and management plan for their efforts, and for the opportunity to comment on this plan. As a falconer who has worked on peregrine recovery as a hacksite attendant, I support the sustainable take of passage peregrines, and specifically Alternative 6 of the draft EA, which would allow take of first-year peregrines anywhere in the United States between 20 September and 20 October.

I would like to emphasize, however, that this is only a first step. As noted in the EA, the Arctic peregrine (Falco peregrinus tundrius) was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1994. Other populations, including the American peregrine (F. p. anatum), were delisted in 1999, recovery goals having been met several years earlier. Peregrine populations across North America are either stable or increasing, both in range (peregrines nesting in areas where they were historically absent, such as here in Nebraska) and in density (see, for example, Colorado). In fact, it is likely that North American peregrine populations have never been higher. Ideally, then, they should be treated no differently than other non-endangered raptors, and FWS should turn over their management to the States as soon as possible, subject only to broad limits on take to levels that will not impact existing populations: five percent of annual production by the Service's very conservative estimate. (I would suggest that this percentage be subject to upward revision as more data become available.)

On a related note: All alternatives within the EA aim to effectively prevent or at least severely limit take of peregrines originating within the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, as requested by the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. Treating this population as sacrosanct obviously, and in my opinion needlessly, complicates the management of the species and sharply limits the number of passage birds available to falconers. I would like to point out that: 1) the AFWA request that these birds receive special protection is based on data nearly a decade old; 2) peregrines populations have continued to increase since then; and 3) this is a purely political consideration in any case. There is no strictly biological reason for this segregation, and I hope this restriction will be appropriately dispensed with in the near future.

In short, I believe that peregrine populations are healthy enough across North America that they do not warrant special management, especially geographic restrictions on take. However, for as long as they are under direct federal management, I would suggest a more flexible framework for adaptive management. Population and harvest data should be reviewed more frequently, perhaps every three years rather than every five as suggested in the draft EA. Upward trends in population should correspond with more liberal harvest limits, and the special status of the eastern peregrine population should be dropped as soon as possible.

To end on a more personal note, I would like to write briefly about what the passage peregrine means. Some commenters are bound to note that falconers have access to large numbers of captive-bred peregrines, and more recently to limited numbers of nestling peregrines taken from wild eyries in the western United States. What these commenters may not know, or may not care about, is that these birds, however wonderful, are not the same thing. Furthermore, the falconers I know are the finest people one could wish to meet: ethical, conscientious, enthusiastic, fully engaged with the natural world in a way that would seem alien to most Americans of this generation. Some of these individuals put their hearts and souls, along with more tangible resources like time and money, into peregrine recovery -- beginning in the 1970s when there was no guarantee it would work. Compared with theirs, my contributions were minimal, might even be disparaged as jumping on the bandwagon at the last minute. But falconers as a group have worked, and waited, for this moment for decades. The point I'm trying to make is that peregrines recovered largely because falconers, with the assistance of other entities including the FWS, made it happen. We should be allowed to renew our long, mutually beneficial hands-on relationship with the birds of our dreams, and in some cases our fondest memories: passage peregrines. Let our history resume where it left off. It is not only biologically feasible, it is simply the right thing to do.

Thanks once again for your work on this issue, and for your attention to these comments.


Mark G. Churchill

Anonymous said...

Chief, Division of Migratory Birds
United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Re:Comment/Draft Environmental Assessment/Migrant Peregrines, Take for Falconry Purposes

Dear Sir:

As a licensed falconer for more than a decade and an Attorney for twice that time, I have followed the progress of Peregrine recovery and regulation with great interest. I congratulate the service on its many years of hard work and sacrifice in bring peregrines numbers in the wild well past the initial recovery goals and to almost common numbers.

As a attorney working in the legal "trenches", I strongly desire that all laws and regulations be based on logic, fact, and free from arbitrary or special treatments due to political or other influences.

As a falconer, I doubt that I will ever fly a passage peregrine due to the time constraints of my profession and other factors. I do, however, treasure the dream of one day doing so and desire only reasonable restrictions to my hopes.

Having flown both Harris Hawks and red-tails extensively well past my apprenticeship, I, more than most, have witnessed the great superiority of passage over yeass birds.

As a former officer of a statewide club, I can attest to the very limited numbers of falconers and their minimal if nonexistent impact on wild populations.

In the future, I, like many other falconers, hope that the special treatment of Peregrines will, based on scientific and reason, cease and these beautiful birds be treated for harvest and possession purposes just like all other equally wonderful raptors.

For these reasons, I strongly support a sustainable take of wild peregrines and,specifically, Alternative 6 or the EA allowing harvest in all states for one month each year. Such a decision is clearly supported by the recorded population numbers for several years and is the most scientific and logical option.

Thanks again to you and all the members of the service for your efforts and many sacrifices.

John A. London, III
Attorney at Law
10988 N. Harrells Ferry
Suite 18
Baton Rouge, LA 70816

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