WASHINGTON — The endangered Northern Aplomado Falcon, a regal gray bird with beige markings that was common across Texas and the Southwest until 1952, is making a comeback.
A combined effort by conservationists, federal agencies and private landowners has led to 40 breeding pairs in South Texas and soon, the falcon's reintroduction in West Texas and New Mexico.
"We saw this as a species that deserved a second chance," said Peter Jenny, the president of The Peregrine Fund, a Boise, Idaho, foundation that champions birds of prey.
The success has been so great that he thinks the Northern Aplomado Falcon will soon be delisted as an endangered species. Aplomado is the Spanish word for lead-colored.
Jenny talks while Stella, a 6-year-old Northern Aplomado Falcon that's about 16 inches tall and can fly more than 100 mph, rests calmly on his gloved wrist during an interview in the Environmental Defense Fund's Washington office. When she spreads her three-foot wingspan and shows off her grey and beige bands, the roomful of visitors ooh and ahh.
Stella, raised in captivity and used to humans — who Jenny says she thinks are falcons — isn't part of the release program but serves as one of the fund's goodwill ambassadors.
"The bird is the best ambassador of all," Jenny said.
The Northern Aplomado Falcon's resurgence has relied, more than most rescue efforts, on the goodwill of private landowners. Texas lands are about 97 percent privately owned, limiting the power of the federal government to force change.
"We met with landowners to restore the rich wildlife heritage of Texas," Jenny said.
That resounded with South Texas rancher Frank Yturria.
"I've been a conservationist all my life," said Yturria, 86, who let the fund build platforms for the birds to build their nests over a decade ago on a 12,000-acre ranch he co-owned near Brownsville. Yturria said that he was sitting in the office of a bank he owned when he was told that "a guy and a falcon" were downstairs.
Yturria, who was taken with the bird, a Peregrine Falcon, and with Jenny, its handler, was the first landowner in the state to open his land — a breakthrough for the Northern Aplomado Falcon's fans.
"They're a beautiful, majestic bird," said Yturria, who's proud of his role in the falcon's re-emergence. "It makes me feel good. It's part of the legacy I can leave to my children and grandchildren."
The Environmental Defense Fund helped create an inducement for landowners in the mid-1990s with a "safe harbor" provision to the Endangered Species Act that protects private property from federal intrusion when landowners set acreage aside for endangered animals.
"In return for access, the landowners get a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service" that gives them legal cover, said Michael Bean, a senior attorney with the defense fund. "There are now 2 million acres in Texas in the program."
Yturria participated even before the safe harbor program.
"One of my friends said, 'Are you crazy?'" he said, laughing. Yturria also has set aside land at another ranch as part of a federal program to protect the ocelot.
The Northern Aplomado Falcons, which began nesting on his property, are now scattered over South Texas. And when the Fish and Wildlife Service determines that there are 60 breeding pairs, the Northern Aplomado Falcon will be de-listed from the endangered species list.
"This is a real success story," Jenny said.
The Northern Aplomados mate for life and, unusual among raptors, hunt in pairs, Jenny said.
The Peregrine Fund is pushing for more federal funds for its programs, including $300,000 for the Northern Aplomado.
Yturria remembers seeing the Northern Aplomado Falcons back in the 1940s and 1950s and even thinks he may have shot one or two while he was quail hunting.
Now, he says, he sees them overhead from time to time on his ranch and smiles. His new role is their protector.
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