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Tale of Birds of Prey and Their Predators : Peregrine Falcons Endangered, and Some Say Highly Marketable

December 22, 1990|RICH ROBERTS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early this year a Montana forest ranger found an ailing bald eagle by the side of a road and took it to Jeff McPartlin, who was known for rehabilitating raptors--birds of prey.

The eagle had ingested some poison, but McPartlin nursed it and two weeks later released it at the headquarters of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks along the Missouri River near Great Falls.

Margaret Adams, an Audubon Society official, said she once took an injured great horned owl to McPartlin.

"It took Jeff about 15 minutes to figure out its hips were dislocated," Adams said. "He popped them back into place, and it was released within 24 hours."

That view of McPartlin as a benefactor of birds conflicts sharply with opinions of some members of the North American Falconers Assn. (NAFA), who make up about two-thirds of the 2,700 falconers--people who hunt with birds--in the United States.

One, Steve Sherrod of Bartlesville, Okla., called McPartlin "a traitor to the very sport we all love."

That was after McPartlin was kicked out of NAFA for working undercover for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in "Operation Falcon," which exposed illegal trafficking of birds several years ago.

McPartlin also raises peregrine falcons, a species whose days seemed numbered in 1969 when there were 60 nesting pairs in the contiguous 48 states and the Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as endangered--one step from nature's Death Row, a victim of the pesticide DDT.

No longer, it was feared, would people marvel at the high-speed dives and mid-air kills of nature's swiftest creature--a spectacle older than Christianity.

Through the efforts of biologists, countless volunteers and financial contributors--all revolving around the Peregrine Fund Inc. of Boise, Ida.--more than 3,000 peregrines have been bred in captivity to restock the wild, and now experts see what signals a major comeback in the annals of conservation.

But a close look at the shadowy community of falconry also reveals a dark side, with links to the Middle East, where falconry traditions run hot and deep. Even in the United States, falconers guard their turf against rigid government regulation with the tenacity of their birds.

For example:

--Critics claim that the Peregrine Fund's leaders got the bird listed as endangered to acquire a corner on the market and now want peregrine falcons down-listed to cash in.

--Fish and Wildlife Service documents show that the Peregrine Fund, although supported by public funds and purporting to operate within the framework of the Endangered Species Act, has (a) given birds to its directors, (b) exchanged birds with one breeder who sells birds to Arabs and who was once convicted of illegal trafficking and (c) received donations from Arabs for assisting in their breeding programs.

--One Peregrine Fund director, Frank Bond, who recently ran for governor of New Mexico and lost, used his influence to retrieve one of his own unregistered--i.e., illegal--birds that was seized in Operation Falcon.

--Outside biologists and breeders question the Peregrine Fund's motives and methods, particularly the practice of replacing the extinct eastern peregrine with a stronger hybrid that would be more marketable, should the peregrine come off the endangered list.

--Hari Har Singh Khalsa, a falcon breeder in New Mexico, continues to make accusations. The Peregrine Fund's defenders say he is motivated by greed. Khalsa admits he is "ruthless."

--The North American Falconers Assn. attempts to control publicity about its activities to the extent of trying to kill articles it says will be critical.

--Before the FWS hired McPartlin to go undercover, it knew he had once been convicted on an illegal falcon-trafficking violation.

In the falconry game, nobody seems to come off clean.

If this seems as if it's a lot of fuss over a bird smaller than a chicken, consider that the peregrine is a special bird with a special fascination, and implications about abuse of the Endangered Species Act are serious.

Maurice LeFranc, who specializes in birds of prey for the endangered species group of the private and nonprofit National Wildlife Federation, says talk of down-listing the peregrine from endangered is premature.

Others say there are plenty of peregrines, which have been protected by law since Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Without the endangered listing, U.S. falconers could trap peregrines in the wild for their personal use. As it is, only captive-bred birds from breeding stock in captivity before 1977 may be used, and there are strict regulations on their sale under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The Fish and Wildlife Service has appointed a recovery team of five experts to study the comeback and make a recommendation. Le-Franc says the service is lowering its original recovery goals toward an arbitrary judgment that will make itself look good.

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