Raptor revival; Back from the brink, peregrine falcons may winter on Georgia's coast no longer endangered, but still squarely in the debate over federal laws protecting them

By Charles Seabrook
Copyright 1998 Atlanta Journal and Constitution
September 6, 1998

Very soon, dozens of swift-flying peregrine falcons will descend on Georgia's coast to spend the winter. Anyone walking on the state's barrier island beaches in the next few months will likely be able to spot one of the awe-inspiring creatures diving at speeds of up to 200 mph.

"If you see one of them darting about in the wind, you'll never forget the sight," says Georgia Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, an avid birdwatcher.

Twenty-five years ago, the likelihood that anyone would ever see a peregrine falcon was slim. The bird was on the brink of extinction after widespread use of DDT and other pesticides thinned its eggshells and caused other reproductive problems.

Restoration efforts have so successfully brought the falcon back from the edge of oblivion that federal officials last month took the rare step of removing it from the federal list of endangered species. The raptor is the first of several birds to recover after nearly being wiped out by the widespread effects of DDT. Still recovering are bald eagles, brown pelicans and condors.

"The Endangered Species Act is working," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt declared as he stood atop Stone Mountain with other dignitaries late last month and released a peregrine falcon back into the wild.

In May, he had emphasized that the falcon and 28 other once-rare plants and animals likely would be declared fully or partly recovered within two years and eligible for delisting. Species expected to be "flying, splashing and leaping off" the endangered list, which now includes 1,138 plants and animals, range from the bald eagle and fearsome gray wolf to the obscure Missouri bladder-pod, Babbitt said.

A group of 30 lawmakers, most from Western states, criticized Babbitt's statement. In a joint letter to the secretary, they said he had provided no solid evidence that the ESA was responsible for the recovery of those species.

Some of the species, they contend, may be delisted largely because their population levels have turned out to be greater than previously thought or because threats to the species had been overestimated. Some species may not be true species at all, but hybrids. In the cases of the peregrine falcon, bald eagle and brown pelican, the banning of DDT was the main reason for their recovery, not the ESA, the lawmakers said.

"The majority of the species (in Babbitt's announcement) were anything but proof that the Endangered Species Act works," said Tom Pyle, director of the caucus of Western lawmakers. "Secretary Babbitt was spreading bogus information."

Babitt's reply: "These people cannot stand the sight of success, and the ESA has been a success."

The peregrine falcon is in the middle of this debate. The day after Babbitt released the peregrine at Stone Mountain, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially served notice in the Federal Register that the bird is being proposed for delisting. After a public comment period ends Nov. 23, the bird will be taken off the list if there are no strong objections from the public, biologists or conservation groups.

The FWS acknowledges that the banning of DDT in 1972 made the falcon's recovery possible. The falcon was not directly poisoned by DDT but from the pesticide residue stored in the fatty tissue of the seed-eating and insect-eating birds that are its prey. The DDT in turn caused a thinning of the falcons' eggs, and very few falcons were being born. By 1975, the peregrine population had reached a record low of 324 nesting pairs in North America.
Now there are 1,600 breeding pairs in the nation.

While the DDT ban removed the main cause of the bird's decline, the FWS says the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act and the efforts of the service --- in partnership with state wildlife agencies, universities, private ornithological groups and individuals --- also were needed.

The peregrine population had reached the point in the early 1970s that the bird was unable to withstand both natural and man-made threats --- hunting, pesticides and loss of habitat --- and it was in danger of extinction.

Under the ESA, a fast-track captive breeding program for the birds was set up at several wildlife centers around the nation to supply Georgia and other states with birds to re-establish wild populations. Since 1990, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has released 29 of those peregrines at Yonah Mountain, Bell Mountain, Tallulah Gorge, Cloudland Canyon and other mountain sites in the state. The bird released last month atop Stone Mountain was cared for at the Chattahoochee Nature Center after it was found injured in Roswell.

"We also were able (under the ESA) to protect the bird's habitat and protect it from hunting and other hazards that may have prevented its recovery," said Jim Ozier, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The ESA, for instance, has prohibited federal agencies from engaging in any activity that might jeopardize the bird's habitat in national forests and parks and other federal lands. State agencies were under similar restrictions.

The ESA also restricted development of private land that harbored the falcon, but the bird's preference for rugged mountain cliffs and ledges for nesting meant much of its habitat was on public land.

In addition, the act protected the peregrine from "illegal takes," including hunting, shooting, trapping, collecting or any other practice harassing or harming the birds. It put a stop to collecting baby falcons and eggs to raise the birds in captivity and train them for the sport of falconry.

The act also called for the FWS to develop a recovery plan for the falcon. As a result, the service produced four regional recovery programs, including one for the falcon in Eastern states.

As part of the recovery program, dozens of falcons were raised in captivity and then released.

Georgia, on the periphery of the peregrine's nesting range, reportedly has had only two successful falcon nests since 1942, with a pair of falcons successfully raising chicks in a nest on a ledge of a downtown Atlanta skyscraper in 1995 and 1997.

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