The Endangered Species Act (ESA) turns 40 in December, and one of the highest profile species used by supporters and most in the media to prove the act’s success is the American peregrine falcon, a sub-species that lives largely in the lower 48 states. Reality, however, paints a very different picture.
“‛Protection’ under the ESA was unnecessary and provided no positive benefit for Peregrine restoration,” according to Tom Cade and the late Bill Burnham, two of the world’s foremost authorities on the bird, and founder and then-president, respectively, of the Peregrine Fund, the organization that led peregrine recovery efforts. They add, “In fact, it may have worked to the contrary because of the onerous permitting system imposed to do work with the species and the excessive involvement of law enforcement.” There are, however, several key factors that did contribute to the peregrine’s conservation but you’ll seldom if ever hear about them from ESA advocates, if at all.
The foremost cause of the peregrine’s rebound was the banning of DDT, a pesticide which led to a population crash by causing females to lay thin-shelled eggs prone to breaking. “We all acknowledge that the primary reason that this sub-species has recovered is that we restricted DDT,” said Robert Mesta, the lead U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist in charge of delisting the peregrine in 1999. “It was amazing how the birds reacted to the restriction of DDT. Once that was no longer in the environment, they just sprung back.”
DDT was banned in 1972, one year prior the ESA’s passage, so the act can claim no credit for this The American peregrine was removed from the endangered species list in 1999, as the population was deemed healthy enough not to need the ESA’s protection. The growth in population was largely independent of ESA provisions, in addition to the DDT ban. Roughly 56% of the subspecies existed because of three factors for which the ESA cannot be credited: birds that survived the DDT-induced population crash and slowly increased over subsequent decades; 301 pairs in remote Alaskan habitat; and 325 pairs in southern Utah and northern Arizona discovered in the mid-1980s.
The remaining 44% of peregrines in the lower 48 were almost totally due to the release of captive-bred peregrines. From1974-1999, the Peregrine Fund and partner private organizations released 6,769 peregrines in what became the world’s largest and most ambitious captive breeding and release initiative. The vast majority of these peregrines were progeny of birds donated by falconers who initiated and led captive breeding and release efforts. The techniques developed by the Peregrine Fund have benefitted many other endangered species, including the bald eagle.
Certain peregrine conservation efforts have actually led to violations of the Endangered Species Act. To disastrous effect, the Fish & Wildlife Service approved release of some peregrines into non-native habitat—salt marshes in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia—because initial releases in the mid-1970s along historic cliffs failed when great-horned owls preyed on juvenile peregrines. The Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision to introduce the peregrine, a highly aggressive predator into a new environment and establish 28 peregrine pairs on artificial nest towers had very predictable results that led to numerous violations of the ESA: introduced peregrines attacked and wounded migrating Arctic peregrines, a subspecies delisted from the ESA in 1994, and chased piping plovers, another endangered species.
Introduced peregrines also killed least terns and barn owls, two uncommon species of conservation concern. The nest towers are still up, and the peregrines continue to mow down endangered and declining bird species. The ESA prohibits “take” of protected species, which the act defines as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Clearly, the introduced peregrines have taken endangered species. Yet the U.S. government has never had to answer for this, and most ESA proponents ignore it.
ESA proponents constantly warn about the dangers non-native species pose to indigenous wildlife, but proponents celebrate the disastrous introduction of non-native peregrines in the name of conservation. Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of Fish & Wildlife from 1997-2001 and currently head of Defenders of Wildlife, portrays a summer during college spent helping introduce non-native peregrines to a Maryland salt marsh as a defining moment in her life. “I released five Peregrine Falcons. All of us share a responsibility for saving species from the brink of extinction.” She also claims, “The recovery of the peregrine has been a model of partnership in the conservation and recovery of an endangered species.” Ironically, Defenders of Wildlife published a report titled, “Endangered Ecosystems: A Status Report on America’s Vanishing Habitat and Wildlife,” which identifies non-native species as one of the one of the primary threats. One of the ecosystems identified by the report as one of the twenty-one most endangered in the U.S. is the salt marshes of the mid-Atlantic coast, the same habitat into which Ms. Clark and others so proudly introduced non-native peregrines.
Between 1981 and 1984 when falconers, including the Peregrine Fund, were leading recovery efforts, the Fish & Wildlife Service ran a massive sting operation against them that was an utter fiasco. The feds deluded themselves that the Peregrine Fund and others were laundering wild-caught peregrines through their captive breeding facilities for sale to Middle Eastern sheiks. ESA supporters, led by the Audubon Society, shamefully jumped on board. A meticulous investigation by the North American Falconers’ Association revealed the number of wild American peregrines from the U.S. involved in the “huge” black market was just 10 birds and three eggs. It appears Fish & Wildlife took the eggs illegally in yet another violation of the ESA, a charge made by Frank Bond, a highly respected attorney and founding member of the Peregrine Fund, while testifying at a 1985 congressional hearing on the fiasco. The U.S. government never disputed this, despite the seriousness of it and having numerous opportunities to do so on the record. “In the United States, during the period of Operation Falcon, the biggest supplier of wild falcons for export to the Middle East was the United States government,” according to Paul McKay, a journalist who wrote a book about the fiasco. Almost all peregrines involved in illegal international commerce originated in Canada, not the U.S.
Advocates of the ESA give Fish & Wildlife (FWS) undeserved credit for the American peregrine’s rebound. In reality, “the record does not support any statement suggesting that the recovery of the Peregrine occurred because of substantive actions by FWS,” note Cade and Burnham. “The endeavor was largely a private sector-led enterprise with state wildlife and even other federal agencies (Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and National Park Service) having a larger role.”
The rebound of the American peregrine falcon is something to celebrate, except for the non-native peregrines in salt marshes that continue to wreak havoc. Unfortunately, advocates of the Endangered Species Act have badly distorted and omitted the truth about the American peregrine’s conservation, including its tenure under the ESA, and most in the media have parroted these distortions. The Endangered Species Act is a controversial issue, but it’s hard to have an open and honest debate when proponents of the act are so willing to use false and misleading information, and omit other facts entirely, in support of their cause. So the next time you hear the Endangered Species Act is a success because it has saved species like the peregrine falcon, look a little closer and try to separate fact from fiction.