Tale of Birds of Prey and Their Predators : Peregrine Falcons Endangered, and Some Say Highly Marketable

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early this year a Montana forest ranger found an ailing bald eagle by the side of a road and took it to Jeff McPartlin, who was known for rehabilitating raptors--birds of prey.

The eagle had ingested some poison, but McPartlin nursed it and two weeks later released it at the headquarters of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks along the Missouri River near Great Falls.

Margaret Adams, an Audubon Society official, said she once took an injured great horned owl to McPartlin.

"It took Jeff about 15 minutes to figure out its hips were dislocated," Adams said. "He popped them back into place, and it was released within 24 hours."

That view of McPartlin as a benefactor of birds conflicts sharply with opinions of some members of the North American Falconers Assn. (NAFA), who make up about two-thirds of the 2,700 falconers--people who hunt with birds--in the United States.

One, Steve Sherrod of Bartlesville, Okla., called McPartlin "a traitor to the very sport we all love."

That was after McPartlin was kicked out of NAFA for working undercover for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in "Operation Falcon," which exposed illegal trafficking of birds several years ago.

McPartlin also raises peregrine falcons, a species whose days seemed numbered in 1969 when there were 60 nesting pairs in the contiguous 48 states and the Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as endangered--one step from nature's Death Row, a victim of the pesticide DDT.

No longer, it was feared, would people marvel at the high-speed dives and mid-air kills of nature's swiftest creature--a spectacle older than Christianity.

Through the efforts of biologists, countless volunteers and financial contributors--all revolving around the Peregrine Fund Inc. of Boise, Ida.--more than 3,000 peregrines have been bred in captivity to restock the wild, and now experts see what signals a major comeback in the annals of conservation.

But a close look at the shadowy community of falconry also reveals a dark side, with links to the Middle East, where falconry traditions run hot and deep. Even in the United States, falconers guard their turf against rigid government regulation with the tenacity of their birds.

For example:

--Critics claim that the Peregrine Fund's leaders got the bird listed as endangered to acquire a corner on the market and now want peregrine falcons down-listed to cash in.

--Fish and Wildlife Service documents show that the Peregrine Fund, although supported by public funds and purporting to operate within the framework of the Endangered Species Act, has (a) given birds to its directors, (b) exchanged birds with one breeder who sells birds to Arabs and who was once convicted of illegal trafficking and (c) received donations from Arabs for assisting in their breeding programs.

--One Peregrine Fund director, Frank Bond, who recently ran for governor of New Mexico and lost, used his influence to retrieve one of his own unregistered--i.e., illegal--birds that was seized in Operation Falcon.

--Outside biologists and breeders question the Peregrine Fund's motives and methods, particularly the practice of replacing the extinct eastern peregrine with a stronger hybrid that would be more marketable, should the peregrine come off the endangered list.

--Hari Har Singh Khalsa, a falcon breeder in New Mexico, continues to make accusations. The Peregrine Fund's defenders say he is motivated by greed. Khalsa admits he is "ruthless."

--The North American Falconers Assn. attempts to control publicity about its activities to the extent of trying to kill articles it says will be critical.

--Before the FWS hired McPartlin to go undercover, it knew he had once been convicted on an illegal falcon-trafficking violation.

In the falconry game, nobody seems to come off clean.

If this seems as if it's a lot of fuss over a bird smaller than a chicken, consider that the peregrine is a special bird with a special fascination, and implications about abuse of the Endangered Species Act are serious.

Maurice LeFranc, who specializes in birds of prey for the endangered species group of the private and nonprofit National Wildlife Federation, says talk of down-listing the peregrine from endangered is premature.

Others say there are plenty of peregrines, which have been protected by law since Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Without the endangered listing, U.S. falconers could trap peregrines in the wild for their personal use. As it is, only captive-bred birds from breeding stock in captivity before 1977 may be used, and there are strict regulations on their sale under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The Fish and Wildlife Service has appointed a recovery team of five experts to study the comeback and make a recommendation. Le-Franc says the service is lowering its original recovery goals toward an arbitrary judgment that will make itself look good.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service seems to be in a hurry to look at several species to down-list," he said.

The Peregrine Fund was started in 1970 by Dr. Tom Cade when he was teaching ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The project to restore the sub-species Falco peregrinus was later expanded to facilities at Ft. Collins, Colo., and Santa Cruz, where Brian Walton heads the Predatory Bird Research Group.

Seven years ago, the Ft. Collins facility moved into permanent headquarters at Boise as the World Center for Birds of Prey. More than 3,000 of the birds have been bred in captivity and released in cities or in the wild of half the states.

"Of the total number of birds we have released, in cities or on cliffs or towers, about 83% have made it to independence," says Bill Burnham, president of the Peregrine Fund and director of the center.

The level of success has been about the same, city or country. To peregrines, a skyscraper is just a man-made cliff, the street below a canyon, and if there is a plentiful food supply of pigeons and there are no great horned owls or golden eagles--peregrines' natural predators--so much the better.

DDT and its residue, metabolite DDE, that experts say killed birds outright or caused eggshells so thin they would shatter in nests, have long been banished in the United States. The birds are reproducing in the wild again. Some say the crisis is passing.

And some falconers claim there never was a crisis.

ARABS AND ADVERSARIES

McPartlin was the kingpin of the Fish and Wildlife Service's "Operation Falcon" sting that climaxed in 1984.

The sweep led to 68 convictions in the United States, most on misdemeanor charges, and resulted in three years of jail time, $501,071 in fines, 1,615 hours of community service and 78 1/2 years probation. Seven other indictments are pending for fugitives who fled the country. The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia paid its fine with a letter of credit for $150,000 to the U.S. Department of Justice.

McPartlin said 35 NAFA members were convicted. Williston Shor of Mill Valley, Calif., editor of Hawk Chalk, the North American Falconers Assn.'s newsletter, said there were 27 convictions of NAFA members "that I might call serious . . . (and) more than 20 . . . were expelled from NAFA and told that if they were good boys they could reapply for membership after either a year or expiration of their probation, whichever came last."

Feelings toward McPartlin were so bitter--and remain so--that federal agents issued him a bulletproof vest and guarded his house, where the Fish and Wildlife Service kept 106 confiscated falcons for several months.

McPartlin says he never wore the bulletproof vest, but he thinks the 1985 triple murder of a family named McKay in a house near his might have been meant for him. Authorities say it was simply a burglarly gone bad.

Frank Beebe of Vancouver, Canada, has been called "the father of falconry" on the continent. He helped to form NAFA many years ago--then was drummed out of it when Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrested him for robbing raptor nests and trying to smuggle birds across the border into the United States.

Beebe called the charges "totally false" and blamed Cade and colleague Jim Weaver, who managed the Cornell program, for setting him up. Beebe later wrote a booklet, "The Myth of the Vanishing Peregrine" and still claims that Cade and Weaver created the peregrine crisis for their own gain.

"It was a fraud," Beebe repeated recently. "Peregrines are not now, were not then and never were endangered. . . . The endangered listing made peregrines million-dollar birds."

The case against DDT, he said, was supported by comparing normal eggshells to the thickness of old eggs in museums and other collections, which he said had to be thicker than normal to survive the original removal of their contents.

Lloyd Kiff disagrees. He is head of the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology in Los Angeles and has the world's largest collection of birds' eggs--about 800,000, including hundreds of peregrine eggs.

"There are no thin-shelled eggs from before (the introduction of DDT in) 1947," Kiff said. "(Saying there was no crisis is) a ridiculous assertion."

Kiff called the Peregrine Fund people "the heroes of our time."

The Peregrine Fund receives $345,000 of its annual budget of $1.5 million from the Fish and Wildlife Service. One FWS source said that for all the good it does for endangered species, its money would be better spent elsewhere, but that U.S. Senator James McClure (R-Ida.) keeps it coming to Boise.

Oil-rich Arabs, who have received help from Peregrine Fund personnel in setting up their own breeding operations, also have contributed, along with several state fish and wildlife departments, including California's. The rest of the funding comes from many private individuals and corporations.

More than that, Khalsa said, the Peregrine Fund has given birds to Arabs with an unofficial understanding that a handsome donation would return--tantamount, he implies, to selling birds raised by a research facility supported by public funds.

Khalsa, a former Cornell University student, was born Alan Howell Parrot in New England. At 22 he converted to the Sikh religion, changed his name and started wearing a turban.

Burnham denied Khalsa's accusation that birds went to Arabs for money but confirmed that Arabs have made contributions in amounts up to $20,000.

If there is no evidence that the Peregrine Fund is doing business with Arabs directly, Khalsa said, they are at least laundering the birds through private breeders, such as Steve Baptiste of Reno, Nev. As a result of Operation Falcon, Baptiste and former partner David Jamieson were fined $25,000 each and Baptiste was put on five years' probation, which expired a year ago, for illegal transactions.

Jamieson now works for Khalsa, who bought Jamieson's breeding farm.

The Middle East falcon market went on hold with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2. Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein is believed to be a falconer, and Saudi Arabian falconers commonly have taken their birds to Iraq to hunt houbara bustards, a falcon's favorite desert prey.

But Fish and Wildlife Service documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show exchanges of endangered peregrines between the Peregrine Fund and Baptiste as recently as June of '89, and sales by Baptiste to Arabs.

Considering Baptiste's breeding ranch is owned by Dan Brimm of La Jolla, a heavy donor and former Peregrine Fund director, the Peregrine Fund's judgment in not keeping Baptiste at arm's length would seem questionable.

"I don't necessarily disagree," Burnham said.

In the early '80s, the Peregrine Fund's Cade tried to get permission to support his operations by selling birds to Arabs but was refused by the FWS, under a condition of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibiting their commercial use. In November of 1981, Cade and 11 others--among them Baptiste--signed a statement of intent with the North American Raptor Breeders' Assn. "to obtain necessary changes in federal regulations to permit the sale of captive raptors."

The law was changed in August of '83.

Later, the progressive recovery of the peregrine drove down the falcon market from the boom years of the late '70s and early '80s. Peregrines now can be had for as little as $400.

INSIDE TRADING

McPartlin and Khalsa claim that the Peregrine Fund has given birds to some of its own directors and others in return for favors or services.

"It's an old-boys' club," Khalsa said.

Records show that, among Peregrine Fund directors and donors, Robert Berry and Dan Konkel of Sheridan, Wyo., each received two birds from the fund since 1988 and Bond, of New Mexico, got one from Baptiste.

During Operation Falcon in '84, an unbanded--i.e., non-registered--gyrfalcon, a large arctic bird owned by Bond, was seized at Baptiste's facility near Reno and placed in McPartlin's care at Great Falls along with 105 other confiscated birds that McPartlin described as "some of the most unkempt creatures I've ever seen."

According to a Fish and Wildlife Service communication, Bond exerted pressure in Washington to get the bird back, and a few months later it was returned to Burnham at the Peregrine Fund's former facility in Colorado.

Burnham said some birds have been given to Peregrine Fund directors--primarily those who donated the use of their personal birds to help start the project, and in many cases birds too old to be useful for breeding.

Recent transactions with Baptiste, Burnham said, were "essentially at the request of the state of Nevada. The birds we sent him were anatums (a peregrine sub-species) that were released in downtown Las Vegas on a building. The ones he sent us were non-anatums. We released those back East."

The three sub-species of North American peregrines are anatums, Peale's and tundra. Only the anatums were considered endangered, but the FWS grouped all sub-species as endangered under the act's "look-alike" clause because it believed even some experts can't tell one sub-species from another.

SUPERBIRDS

Some say the Peregrine Fund is tampering too much with nature. When experts decided that anatum peregrines had been wiped out east of the Mississippi, a hybrid sub-species of Peale's and Spanish peregrines produced by artificial insemination was used for reintroduction--in effect, some scientists say, replacing apples with oranges, when more "apples" were still available in the West.

But the Peregrine Fund said the eastern and western birds were too different. Critics say they used that as an excuse to create a superior, more marketable bird from test tubes.

Sherry Teresa, an associate wildlife biologist specializing in endangered species with the California Department of Fish and Game, said: "They don't breed that way in the wild. It's just for falconers to have these superbirds . . . like (breeding) a grizzly bear with a polar bear."

Former Peregrine Fund director Dan Brimm said: "I'm a little uneasy with it myself."

Dean Amadon, chairman emeritus of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and author of "Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World," said: "I would favor taking something as close as you could, but . . . I don't think any harm has been done by mixing up these birds. The important thing is we're getting 'em back."

Clayton White, a professor of zoology at Brigham Young University, is both a director of the Peregrine Fund and a member of the FWS-appointed recovery team.

"The Peregrine Fund has created some problems because it has, by default, more or less monopolized the breeding and turning loose of peregrines," White said. "Private breeders want to be able to sell their product. (But) the Peregrine Fund makes no money on this."

Burnham said that 90% of the peregrines bred at Boise are anatums.

Besides, says Berry, president of the North American Raptor Breeders' Assn., non-endangered species, such as gyrfalcons, are plentiful in Canada and Alaska.

"We've created an artificial market for something that is common," he said. "There will never be any profit in the sale of falcons."

THE FEDS

The Montana license plates on McPartlin's mud-splattered pickup truck read "PERE GYR," the mark of a dedicated falconer.

But he has been repeatedly discredited in Hawk Chalk, the NAFA newsletter, which has cited his '72 conviction for transporting two gyrfalcons across state lines without proper permits. McPartlin says the violation was inadvertent, although he pleaded guilty and paid a fine of $200.

Shor said: "He was convicted (by NAFA) of lying on his application for membership."

NAFA claims that McPartlin approached the Fish and Wildlife Service, offering to entrap and snitch on falconers.

"Absolutely not," says Nando Mauldin, who was then special agent in charge of special operations for the FWS.

Mauldin says that in 1977, aware of McPartlin's arrest record, he and agent Dave Kirkland went to Montana to recruit McPartlin. They paid him $2,000 a month. Afterward, McPartlin received several awards and commendations, including the prestigious Chevron Conservation Award, plus a $15,000 bonus from the FWS in ceremonies at Washington, D.C. His wife received $5,000.

But he has been blacklisted by falconers' organizations nationwide.

NAFA also has accused McPartlin of trying to arrange to have two falconer-breeders killed. That accusation arose from a curbside conversation on June 28, 1984, between McPartlin and Marcus Ciesielski, a West German who with his brother Lothar was reputed to be a major falcon smuggler.

McPartlin tells it this way: "The night before takedown, I was with another (FWS) federal agent, John Gavitt, sitting on a curb in front of a motel in Great Falls with Marcus Ciesielski a few hours before his arrest.

"I said, 'Marcus, (David) Jamieson is really causing me trouble . . . turning me in to the feds.'

"He said, 'Oh, maybe we help. Maybe many broken bones and six months in hospital will work.'

"I said, 'Well, it's both Jamieson and (Steve) Baptiste, and I don't think (that) will do it.'

"And he looked at me calmly and said, 'Well, then we terminate them.'

"I said, 'What will it cost?'

"He said, 'You are a friend of my father. Maybe a little bit of money for the airplane and one female gyrfalcon.'

" 'How will you do it?'

" 'We have a man who comes over from Ankara, Turkey, and Interpol can't catch him.'

"The whole purpose of that conversation was to determine the ability of the Ciesielskis to pull a hit on McPartlin, once it was learned that I was acting as an undercover federal agent."

Operation Falcon was climaxed the next day with coordinated raids by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service agents on suspected illegal falcon traffickers in the two countries.

McPartlin had tried to "sting" falconers by selling them birds he had removed from the wild legally, under a special permit he had been issued by the FWS.

Canadian journalist Paul McKay spent a year researching the operation, then wrote an award-winning report in Whig-Standard magazine two years ago and published a book expanding the story: "The Pilgrim and the Cowboy."

McKay's view is that many honest and innocent falcon fanciers were hurt in the sting. His treatment was not kind to McPartlin or Khalsa.

NAFA's Shor said: "I examined the Operation Falcon data and concluded it was a fraud."

The National Wildlife Federation's LeFranc disagrees.

"That's what the falconry people would like everyone to think," he said. "They argue that if the market wasn't there, they wouldn't have done anything illegal."

Dave McMullen, the FWS' assistant regional director for law enforcement on the West Coast, based in Portland, Ore., said that illegal trafficking of falcons has dropped off since Operation Falcon.

"We have no information of any money going back to the Peregrine Fund for the sale of falcons . . . laundered or otherwise . . . from illegal birds," he said.

McMullen also said: "I don't know why (NAFA) kicked (McPartlin) out. I don't think NAFA condones illegal activity . . . (or why it) punishes somebody that reports it. I don't understand why they're so obsessed."

A P.R. PROBLEM

McPartlin now lives in a small house on two acres of the rolling prairies of Montana. He keeps several falcons and flies them in the surrounding fields.

At the kitchen table he refers to his log of Operation Falcon and says that of 63 contacts made, he initiated only six, and that 56 of the contacts were NAFA members. He said there are 1,200 taped conversations to support his allegations.

Elsewhere, Shor referred to his own records and provided details of a survey of NAFA members indicating that 26 were approached first by McPartlin, who offered illegal deals to several.

Either way, NAFA felt the damage was done. Jim Weaver then-president of NAFA, wrote in Hawk Chalk in April of '85: ". . . we have a monumental public relations problem."

Writer Stephen J. Bodio of Magdalena, N.M., resigned from NAFA in '85 after Weaver asked him to kill his book, "A Rage of Falcons," and an excerpt that was to appear in the Smithsonian magazine. Bodio refused--but said Weaver did persuade a photographer to withdraw his photos for the excerpt.

Bodio said NAFA had "finally succumbed to the paranoia I have been arguing against for 10 years. . . . As long as we act as though we have something to hide, the public will assume that we do."

Who is paranoid? McPartlin? NAFA? Everybody in falconry?

In his account of Operation Falcon, McKay wrote that Khalsa was a government informant and was "universally loathed" afterward for his "treacherous ethics . . . (and) double-crosses."

McPartlin was the government's only undercover operative. Khalsa's involvement was limited to snitching on two bird smugglers--McKay's "Pilgrim and the Cowboy," Glen Luckman and McPartlin, respectively.

Khalsa admits his mission in life is not to make friends.

"I have worked very hard to put my competition out of business," Khalsa said. "Every one of my competitors is terrified of me. I am ruthless. I don't care if they hate me. If you were pulling a big scam and I was yelling about it, you'd hate me, too.

"I am also totally honest. I never sold my soul to the Peregrine Fund to get birds."

Six years ago , Operation Falcon found no wrongdoing in the Peregrine Fund.

Burnham of the Peregrine Fund said: "They would have loved to get us for something."

He said that during Operation Falcon he got a call from McPartlin but refused to become involved with him.

Berry said he also shied away from McPartlin.

"I never returned the calls," he said. "I was totally convinced he was marketing birds (illegally). I never dreamed he was a federal agent. (Other) guys got sucked in by him."

One source suggested that the FWS laid off the Peregrine Fund because it feared being embarrassed by its own heavy financial support of the organization.

Washington columnist Jack Anderson reported in 1976 that the CIA, attempting to curry favor with Middle East oil interests, had trapped falcons in Alaska to give to Arabs. That operation was not linked to the Peregrine Fund.

But David Ellis, who heads the FWS' Captive Propagation Unit at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., said: "There have been a lot of interesting things done. I have been really concerned. I think there should be an audit, and the audit should be made public."

Until a few years ago, Ellis was based in Arizona, where his 11-year study disputed a FWS finding and showed that peregrines there were thriving and didn't need a listing, contrary to what the Peregrine Fund was saying. The Arizona Game and Fish Department announced Nov. 6 the discovery of 10 more breeding pairs and a total of 42 territories of the state with reproducing peregrines.

And James C. Bednarz of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Assn. in Pennsylvania questions the effect of captive-breeding programs, noting that population increases have occurred in 17 of 30 global regions surveyed without the aid of reintroduction, and that a ban on pesticides may be making more of a difference.

Tom Smylie, a FWS raptor expert in Albuquerque, N.M., conceded that in running the Peregrine Fund, Cade might have "stepped on some toes, and there are still some hard feelings--but he saved a species . . . one of the few endangered species that has been saved."

FALCON FUTURES

Brian Walton, the Santa Cruz researcher, is concerned that if the FWS down-lists the peregrine, California may follow suit.

"The peregrine is making a great recovery in several areas of the United States," Walton said. "But we still have the pesticide problem in many areas."

If the bird is to be down-listed, it could cost the Peregrine Fund its federal funding. Burnham said the center would try to carry on, without its most glamorous bird.

"When the Peregrine Fund was created, there was no intention of us existing beyond recovery of the peregrine falcon," Burnham said. "There are a limited amount of resources that now need to be directed toward other species that need it."

A major "Maya Project" is under way to study tropical raptors in Guatemala and Belize. Peregrine Fund biologist Willard Heck spends much of every year on the island of Mauritius off the east coast of Africa, working to save the rare Mauritius kestrel.

Those and more than 40 other troubled species have been brought to Boise for study and breeding in buildings apart from the peregrines. There are malevolent looking black African eagles, American bald eagles, golden eagles, elf owls and Fiji and aplomado falcons. The facility conducts about 3,000 people through on tours each year.

The peregrines are isolated in a shed similar to a cellblock. They flash their lethal talons as they swoop to the barred windows in the doors. They eyeball strangers fiercely.

Especially during nesting time, scientists such as Heck and Cal Sandfort, the technical associate for raptor propagation, put in long hours for low salaries, watching over the various species via an array of TV monitors and through slits in doors.

Although some claim the Peregrine Fund has ulterior motives to down-list the bird, Heck differs.

"That's the way the Endangered Species Act works," he says. "A lot of protectionists are using the act to protect things in many directions. For example, to use the spotted owl to protect an old-growth forest, in my mind, is not the way it was meant to work.

"You put things on (the list) when it's needed, but you're also obligated to take things off when it's not needed."

The Peregrine Fund continues to release 200-300 birds a year.

Burnham said: "There's no way in the world everybody's going to like us. But when you look at the whole record, it's pretty good."

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