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The Mountain-Prairie Region


The Role of the Endangered Species Act and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Recovery of the Peregrine Falcon

The federal role in protecting endangered species began as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century. In response to the alarming decline of the passenger pigeon and other game birds, Congress passed the first federal wildlife law, the Lacey Act of 1900. The Lacey Act authorized federal enforcement of state wildlife laws. Section 1 gave the Secretary of Agriculture authority to adopt all measures necessary for the "preservation, distribution, introduction, and restoration of game birds and other wild birds." Congress took two more steps toward protecting endangered species when it passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, to protect birds migrating between Canada and the United States and the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929, to provide funding to acquire migratory bird habitat.

Slowly but steadily, awareness of the plight of species facing extinction began to build in the United States. The environmental activism of the 1960's prompted the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), to form the Committee on Rare and Endangered Wildlife Species in 1964. Much of the information gathered by this committee was used by the Department of the Interior to publish the "Redbook -Rare and Endangered Fish and Wildlife of the United States -Preliminary Draft." This 1964 publication became known as the "Red Book," and became the first official listing of species the federal government considered to be in danger of extinction.

Two years later, Congress passed its first endangered species legislation, the Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966. The goal as stated in the 1966 Act was to "conserve, protect, restore, and propagate certain species of native fish and wildlife," although it did little but authorize efforts to acquire important habitat. Realizing this, Congress replaced the 1966 Act with the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969. The 1969 Act extended protection to some invertebrates, increased prohibitions on illegal trade, and set the framework that would later be the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES). Still not satisfied with the protections the 1969 Act provided domestic species and prompted by agencies like the Service, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Act). This Act is by far the most significant piece of endangered species legislation and is considered one of the world’s most important conservation laws.

The Act calls for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats on which they depend. The Act defines "conserve" as restoring species to the point where the populations are stable and no longer in need of special protection. The Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are the primary federal agencies responsible for administering the Act and for coordinating recovery efforts for endangered and threatened species. The Service is responsible for terrestrial and freshwater species, while NMFS is responsible for marine species and most anadromous fish.

The Service, through its recovery program, works closely with many partners to conserve endangered and threatened species. The goal of the recovery process is to eliminate threats to species and their habitat and to restore and maintain secure, self-sustaining wild populations. Coordination among federal, state and local agencies, researchers, conservation organizations, private individuals, major landowners, and tribal governments is perhaps the most essential ingredient for the development and implementation of an effective recovery program. In its role as the coordinator of the peregrine falcon recovery program, the Service emphasized cooperation and teamwork.

The use of DDT as a pesticide to control forest, farm and nuisance insects during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s resulted in a precipitous decline of peregrine falcons in North America. During this period of DDT use, eggshell thinning and nesting failures were widespread in peregrine falcons, and in some areas, successful reproduction virtually ceased. As a result, there was a steady decline in the number of peregrine falcons in most areas of its range in North America. DDE, a metabolite of DDT, prevents normal calcium deposition during eggshell formation, resulting in thin-shelled eggs that are susceptible to breakage during incubation. Peregrine falcons feed near the top of the food chain and suffered from the accumulation of DDE due to eating contaminated prey.

The historical status of the peregrine falcon in North America is not well known, but there is general agreement that it was never considered to be common compared to other birds of prey. A close examination of the limited available historical data resulted in a best estimate of 3,875 known or probable nesting pairs. By the time biologists realized the magnitude of the peregrine falcon decline, only 10 to 20 percent of the historical population had survived the affects of DDT. A survey conducted in 1975 recorded an all time low of only 324 nesting pairs in North America.

Population declines due to negative impacts of DDT and its metabolites on peregrine falcon reproduction and survival led the Service to list two of the three North American subspecies, the Arctic peregrine falcon and the American peregrine falcon, as endangered in 1970 under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969. Arctic and American peregrine falcons were included in the list of threatened and endangered foreign species on June 2, 1970, and the native list of endangered and threatened species on October 13, 1970. Upon passage of the Endangered Species Act (Act) of 1973, the native and foreign species lists were combined into a single list of endangered and threatened species. Both the American and Arctic peregrine falcon subspecies were listed as endangered throughout their respective ranges. Only the Peale’s peregrine falcon was reproducing at near normal levels with only traces of DDT.

Section 4(f) of the Act directs the Service to develop and implement recovery plans for listed species. In some cases, the Service appoints recovery teams of experts to assist in the writing of recovery plans. In cooperation with the Service, recovery teams produced four regional peregrine falcon recovery plans, including three recovery plans for the American peregrine falcon in Alaska and the Western United States, and one for the peregrine in the Eastern United States. Although no United States recovery plans established recovery criteria for peregrine falcons nesting outside of the United States, the Canadian Wildlife Service published an Anatum Peregrine Falcon Recovery Plan for American peregrine falcons in Canada.

Although these plans contain recovery objectives unique to their specific recovery region, they do share common categories of objectives allowing measurement of the recovery of the peregrine falcon as one North American population. The range wide recovery strategy put forth by the Service included: the protection and enhancement of essential breeding habitat, identification and preservation of wintering habitat, increasing and maintaining productivity in the wild, release of captive-bred young into historical habitats, preventing human disturbances, identifying all mortality factors and preventing direct take.

The Service initiated the daunting task of recovering the peregrine falcon by developing partnerships with three non-profit captive-breeding institutions to raise young peregrines for release in unoccupied historical habitat and to augment depressed populations. The three institutions are The Peregrine Fund, the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, and the Midwestern Peregrine Recovery Group. These institutions released an estimated 6,000 captive-bred young in 34 states between 1974 and 1997. A small army of release site attendants cared for the birds. This release effort was supported by hundreds of federal and state biologists, independent researchers, bird watchers, and falconers.

On another front the Service was busy protecting peregrine falcon habitat. Section 7 (a) (2) of the Act prohibits federal agencies from engaging in any action that is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of its critical habitat. Federal agencies must consult with the Service prior to conducting, authorizing, or funding activities that might affect a listed species. The Service has conducted thousands of consultations with tribal governments and federal agencies, such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bureau of Land Management, on Federal projects, and on State and private projects that required Federal permits or funding. These consultations resulted in the protection of hundreds of nest sites, thousands of acres of foraging habitat, and the funding of recovery and research projects that contributed significantly to the recovery of the peregrine falcon.

In cooperation with state wildlife law enforcement offices, the Service worked diligently to protect peregrine falcons from illegal take. Section 9 of the Act prohibits the take of a listed species. "Take" is defined to mean "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in such conduct."

The Act requires federal cooperation with states, and Section 6 of the Act creates a process through which the individual states can enter into management and cooperative agreements with the Service. These agreements help establish and fund active endangered species conservation programs. These programs have been effective tools in the recovery of the peregrine falcon, supporting a diversity of projects that have ranged from the purchase of habitat to funding annual breeding surveys.

It is generally acknowledged that the most significant factor in the recovery of the peregrine falcon was the restriction placed on the use of organochlorine pesticides. Use of DDT was banned in Canada in 1970 and in the United States in 1972. Since implementation of these restrictions, reproductive rates in most surviving peregrine falcon populations in North America improved, and numbers began to increase. However, it is also acknowledged that the peregrine falcon would not be recovered today without the protection of the Act and the Act’s provisions which triggered so many effective recovery efforts throughout the range of the species.

The Service’s peregrine falcon recovery program is unprecedented in the world and in the history of endangered species conservation. Over the last quarter of a century the Service has orchestrated a recovery effort that included the cooperation and dedication of hundreds of federal, state, county, and local agencies and governments, conservation groups, universities, tribes, private businesses, distinguished scientists, wealthy entrepreneurs and an army of volunteers ranging from young college graduates to retired citizens. Recognizing that everyone had something to give, the Service was able to combine the resources, talents, and expertise that this diverse group had to offer and use it effectively in the recovery of the peregrine falcon. So today, not only are we celebrating the return of the peregrine falcon, we are also celebrating the human effort that made it a reality.

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