• Christen & Bernadette

THE FASTEST RAPTOR: A Conservation Success Story

Updated: May 9, 2020

Sometimes reading environmental news induces a collective sigh. A communal SMH.

It’s filled with the multiple ways in which humans are negatively impacting the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought that point home in a powerful way: without us, the oceans are quieter, whales are returning to shipping lanes, jellyfish have found their way into Venetian canals, and big cats are pacing city streets. It’s not just the presence of people that cause disruptions in the environment, it’s also the activities in which we engage that cause harm. We use exploitative farming methods. We overfish. We use too many pesticides. We cut down forests.

But there’s hope. We’ve recently experienced the beginnings of an awakening of sorts, perhaps aided by the visible signs evident throughout our period of quarantine. We’re starting to combine our knowledge of science and our passion for the environment to cooperatively work toward positive outcomes.

Cooperation has worked before.

Once upon a time, the Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) was nearly extinct. Today, after successful conservation efforts, these magnificent falcons have returned from the brink of extinction.

The Peregrine falcon is a large crow-sized falcon found throughout the world. It reaches speeds of 200 mph, making it not only the fastest bird in the world, but also the fastest animal on the planet.

It was almost lost.

Populations of the Peregrine, like many other species, plummeted and were almost extinct after being exposed to the chemical called DDT (and its breakdown product DDE). According to one source, …the eastern population plunged from an estimated 350 active nest sites in the 1930's and 1940's to no active breeding birds from 1964 to 1975. Peregrine falcons in the Great Plains states east of the Rocky Mountains and south of U.S. and Canadian boreal forests were also essentially extirpated. West of the 100th meridian, peregrine falcons were significantly reduced. Local populations were greatly depressed or extirpated and by 1965, fewer than 20 pairs were known west of the U.S. Great Plains.

DDT was a pesticide used to control mosquito populations that were spreading malaria in the 1940s (WWII). Fewer mosquitoes meant slower spread of the disease. It was effective at eliminating mosquitoes, but it was also being overused publicly. The mosquitoes grew resistant. It became necessary to use increasing amounts of this harmful pesticide.

So, how were the falcons -- and many other bird species-- being affected?

DDT itself is stored in fat tissues in animals that are exposed and is broken down by the body into metabolites. Metabolites cause the thinning of bird eggshells, which are then easily crushed by the weight of the mother in the nest. In addition, when the animal faces starvation or low food availability and starts to break down its fat stores, toxic DDT is released from the fat stores and into the blood. See more here.

A number of influential people began to highlight these problems. In 1962, Rachel Carson, wrote an important and impactful book entitled Silent Spring. She highlighted the effects of DDT on the environment. Her writing, and the outcry that followed, prompted the US Environmental Protection Agency to stop the use of DDT in 1972. (The use of DDT was banned in Canada in 1970). As a result, the amount of DDT in the environment began to decline, and, with conservation efforts, people began to see an increase in the Peregrine population.

Those conservation efforts were multifaceted. Two subspecies of Peregrine falcons (the American Peregrine falcon and the Arctic Peregrine falcon) were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969, which was a predecessor to the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). They were re-listed on the ESA when it was enacted. Those laws provided a number of protections. For example, under §9(a)(1) of the ESA, no one, public or private, can “take” an endangered species of fish or wildlife. “Take” has been broadly defined to include “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect.” Furthermore, FWS has decreed that “harm” includes “significant habitat modification or degradation.” Accordingly, the habitat as well as the endangered animal is protected from private action.

The ESA proved to be a powerful tool. Its stated purpose is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. It is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Under the ESA, a species, such as the Peregrine falcon, may be listed as either endangered or threatened. "Endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. "Threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.

Scientists launched other conservation measures. Biologists monitored nest sites, and officials restricted human access to the steep cliffs where they breed. Conservation biologists reared and released young falcons back in to the wild, a concept known as captive breeding and release (or hacking). Today, they hatch from predator- free urban skyscrapers and thrive- even right here in Buffalo! See the Live falcon cam at UB.

Since DDT was banned, and numerous conservation efforts were initiated, the Peregrine population has recovered steadily. They were removed from the ESA list in 1999! The campaign to save the Peregrine Falcon was absolutely a collaborative effort. Lawyers, writers, conservation biologists, and other research scientists, all worked together. These Peregrines represent a successful and inspiring conservation story.

This cooperative approach must continue.

There are scientific aspects to conservation. We need biologists, for example, to study the breeding patterns of a species, or the change in population numbers.

We need lawyers to help with the interpretation of existing laws, and craft language for needed amendments or new regulations. Lawyers and business people establish corporate policies, such as determining whether a guitar company should use exotic woods for instruments.

We need government lawyers and agency officials to enforce the law and make or revise regulations.

We need political scientists, too. Politicians who recognize our interdependence with the natural world can demonstrate leadership and promote protective policies. Politicians can put pressure on other governments for change. For instance, change needs to be made legislatively in countries that still use DDT, like North Korea, India, and parts of Africa.

All these people are needed, but so are each of you. As individuals, what actions can we take? We can educate others on the importance of environmental conservation by sharing our passion for it. We can put pressure on our representatives to make eco-friendly changes. We can run for office and demonstrate leadership. We can start a not-for-profit that focuses on a particular issue or species.

We can also pray. Pray for direction. Pray for the ways in which we can use our own talents to protect all of His Creation.

United, we can help restore balance to His beautiful world.

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