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Falcons Set For Return to Wild, Lack of Protections Angers Activists

''Nonessential experimental population'' designation removes many Endangered Species Act protections

Eleven young northern aplomado falcons, an endangered bird once common in Southwest desert grasslands, will be released next week in New Mexico under a federal program approved Wednesday.

The Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will reintroduce up to 150 captive-raised birds a year in their historic habitat in southern New Mexico.

The reintroduced falcons- along with any others that turn up naturally in New Mexico and Arizona- will be considered a "nonessential experimental population."

That designation removes many Endangered Species Act protections, easing land-use restrictions and reducing controversy over the program, the service said.

Six conservation groups oppose the reintroduction plan and said they will go to court to fight it.

"We will challenge the service's decision to strip away vital habitat protections for wild aplomado falcons," WildEarth Guardians Executive Director John Horning said in a prepared statement.

"With more evidence than ever before for a wild falcon population existing in New Mexico and escalating threats from oil and gas, the falcon desperately needs the safety net provided by the Endangered Species Act," he said.

Falcons have been increasingly sighted in New Mexico in recent years and one pair bred successfully in Luna County, but the Fish and Wildlife Service said that's not enough evidence to prevent the nonessential experimental population designation.

"Our goal is to establish a self-sustaining resident population," Benjamin Tuggle, acting Southwest regional director for the service said in a prepared statement.

"We will reintroduce up to 150 falcons annually in small groups to encourage socialization," he added.

The falcon has a bold facial pattern with a distinctive white stripe above the eye, a strongly banded tail and brown "vest."

Exposure to the now-banned pesticide DDT and loss of its Chihuahuan Desert grassland habitat pushed the bird onto the endangered list in 1986.

The New Mexico Game and Fish Department granted importation and handling permits for the program Wednesday, clearing the way for a release Aug. 3 on Ted Turner's Armendaris Ranch south of Truth or Consequences, said service spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., applauded the program Wednesday.

"It is certainly my hope that we will look back in five years and be able to say that the aplomado falcon is flourishing because of this cooperative effort," Domenici said in a statement.

Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal - Reprinted with permission


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