Falconers push for Montana to allow some captures

HELENA, Mont. - Offspring of a swift, crow-size raptor removed from the federal endangered-

species list in 1999 could be captured in limited numbers for the sport of falconry, under a proposal the Montana wildlife agency is considering.

The state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is taking public comment until Jan. 15 on the proposal to let falconers take fledgling peregrine falcons from nests - perhaps removing about half a dozen birds a year. In falconry, trained birds circle above the falconers, take high-speed dives at flushed prey such as grouse, then try to capture the prey.

The Montana Falconers Association wants the state to join six others in the West that allow removal of peregrines from the wild, within a federal framework. If the proposal advances, Fish, Wildlife and Parks will prepare an environmental assessment.

The peregrine population has recovered and estimates of active nests now exceed recovery goals, the agency said. "Numbers are growing, distribution is increasing," said Jeff Herbert, a wildlife administrator for the department. It is overseen by a five-member board that ultimately would decide whether to allow removal of wild peregrines, decision making that would include a new call for public comment.

The Montana Peregrine Institute finds the bird's recovery margins relatively narrow and the capture proposal premature.

"For an animal that just eight years ago was on the endangered-species list, we'd like to see a little more forethought," said Byron Crow, field projects coordinator for the institute.

"We're taking baby steps," said Tom Mutchler, president of the Montana Falconers Association.

The federal framework limits removal of young peregrines to no more than 5 percent of the number observed. Based on a 2006 Montana survey that documented about 65 active Peregrine nests and 147 fledged young, the maximum that could be removed would be seven birds. If the observed number rose in later years, so could removals.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks said Montana might well have had more than 147 fledged young last year. Peregrines typically nest on cliffs and the count likely missed some remote sites.

The state agency said the 2006 productivity rate was 2.3 young peregrines per nest. From 1994 to 2001, the rate was 1.7.

Some falconers have practiced their sport with birds from breeding programs, as regulations kept wild peregrines off limits. Falconers have been instrumental in the country's peregrine recovery, chiefly in two ways, said Tom Cade, founder of The Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho.

"First of all and most critical was the fact that many of them donated or loaned birds that they held in captivity to breeding projects such as the one we operated at Cornell University," Cade said.

He also said many of the techniques that falconers developed for handling and training peregrines were applied in bird releases that became part of the recovery.

Montana Audubon has not taken a position on the proposal. If falcons are to be removed from the wild, "we want to make sure they (state officials) develop a program that won't impact the population and that is enforceable," spokeswoman Janet Ellis said.