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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service holds last of hearings in Socorro, New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM - WildEarth Guardians will advocate full habitat protections for the endangered northern aplomado falcon in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) hearing on falcon reintroduction to be held in Socorro, New Mexico on Tuesday night. The conservation organization has urged FWS to preserve habitat protections in the event that falcons are reintroduced in New Mexico and Arizona. In September 2002, WildEarth Guardians filed a petition to FWS to formally designate critical habitat for the falcon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In December of last year, the group submitted a Notice of Intent to Sue the Service given its failure to issue a timely 90-day finding on the petition as is required by law.
Tuesday night's hearing will be the last of five hearings conducted over the past week on how to design a falcon reintroduction program. Aplomado reintroductions in Texas have been conducted under a "safe harbor" agreement with private landowners. The safe harbor for the falcon ties the landowners to a legal obligation only to maintain existing falcon numbers. Most of the enrolled landowners signed the agreement when there were no falcons in Texas, therefore obligating landowners to maintain a population of zero falcons and providing the landowners with legal immunity in the event they choose to destroy falcon habitat. The agreement has a term of 99 years.
Another reintroduction policy promoted by FWS is the designation of reintroduced falcons as "experimental, non-essential" under a provision of the ESA. An experimental, non-essential designation would remove public lands habitat protection for the falcon - a key safeguard provided under the ESA.
WildEarth Guardians advocates recovery of the northern aplomado falcon through preservation of their habitat and protection of individual falcons in the wild. The group opposes safe harbors and an experimental non-essential designation for the falcon, stating:
* There is already a northern aplomado falcon population in New Mexico, given documented breeding activity of falcons in the wild near Deming in every year since 2000, including successful breeding in 2002. FWS' advocacy of reduced protections would harm this wild population.
* If the New Mexico falcon population is to be supplemented with reintroduced falcons, falcons should be provided with protection from destructive land uses such as oil and gas development and livestock grazing, which are currently degrading falcon habitat and are likely preventing their recovery in the southwest.
* In New Mexico and Arizona, there are extensive federal landholdings that could be used for reintroductions, as well as a private landowner (Ted Turner) with extensive acreage suitable for reintroduction and a willingness to allow fully protected falcons to be released on his large landholdings.
* While WildEarth Guardians supports the release of fully-protected aplomado falcons, in the event of an experimental designation, FWS must also designate the population as essential to preserve some protections under the ESA. Furthermore, the Service should establish a time limit or sunset provision for the experimental status. After the expiration of this time limit, falcons should receive full protection under the ESA.
"The experimental release of aplomado falcons reared in captivity is an indirect and unproven means to reaching the goal of a healthy population in the desert southwest." Hamilton Smith, Conservation Biologist with WildEarth Guardians states." He adds, "We cannot flood the landscape with released birds and hope a few will hang on. This effort requires a renewed commitment to healthy grasslands to further encourage the natural return of this rare bird."
Tuesday night's hearing will be held at the Macey Center, Main Auditorium at New Mexico Technology and will include an informational session from 5-7pm and public comment from 7-9pm.
Visit here for background information on WildEarth Guardians' campaign to protect the northern Aplomado falcon, bellwether of the Chihuahuan Desert.
WildEarth Guardians seeks to preserve and restore native wildlands and wildlife in the American Southwest through fundamental reform of public policies and practices. Also signing on to WildEarth Guardians' critical habitat petition for the aplomado falcon and Notice of Intent to Sue were the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance and Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.