Defenders of Wildlife has set itself the goal of moving more than 100 endangered species up the federal recovery ladder over the next decade. Our “Road to Recovery” series will highlight several of these plants and animals and outline the challenges that lay ahead for improving their status.
Restoring a Desert Eagle
by John Motsinger, Communications Specialist
Aplomado falcons cover a lot of ground. Three different subspecies span the Americas from the southwestern United States to the tip of Argentina. They live in tropical swamps as well as Andean mountaintops. Yet these aggressive hunters disappeared from the northern part of their range sixty years ago and have only recently started to make a comeback.
The Northern Aplomado falcon is a midsize, slate-gray bird of prey, similar to a peregrine falcon with long tail and wings. In the southwestern United States the species mostly inhabits desert grasslands and open savannahs, where falcons like to hunt small birds among yucca plants and mesquite trees. They use large stick nests built by other birds, and breed in pairs with the female typically laying two or three eggs.
Historically, the northern subspecies’ range extended into large parts of west Texas and southern New Mexico, as well as much of northern Mexico. But the U.S. population declined sharply in the early 1900s as a result of fire suppression, overgrazing and agriculture that altered native desert prairies. By the late 1950s, habitat loss and poisoning from harmful pesticides like DDT had completely wiped out Aplomado falcons in the Southwest.
Fortunately, the northern Aplomado falcon was given protection under the ESA in 1986, and recovery efforts were set in motion soon thereafter. More than 1,000 captive-bred falcons have since been released in the wild, and hundreds of chicks have been successfully reared. The key to success has been lasting partnerships with west Texas ranchers and the U.S. military in New Mexico, conserving the species on both public and private lands. These partners have entered into flexible agreements to secure habitat for falcons while allowing activities such as running cattle or testing missiles to continue without additional restrictions.
Through these partnerships, Aplomado falcons have started to gain a talon-hold on recovery. Biologists have observed dozens of nesting pairs, and many are now breeding successfully. But with additional resources, new or improved conservation strategies, and continued collaboration with local partners, Aplomado falcons can take another big step toward recovery. The federal recovery objective to down-list the species from “endangered” to “threatened” requires a minimum self-sustaining population of 60 pairs in the U.S. That modest goal seems very attainable over the next ten years.
In its 2012 biennial review of imperiled species, the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game suggested that updating the Aplomado falcon recovery plan could result in new conservation strategies that would enhance the species’ chances of recovery. Defenders supports continued efforts by the Peregrine Fund to breed falcons in captivity and cooperate with agencies and landowners to release them into the wild. We also support additional work to control invasive shrubs and mesquite that have taken over much of the falcon’s habitat in the U.S. Landowner partnerships like the Malpai Borderlands Group have made exemplary progress in restoring such grasslands. More work is now needed to protect falcon habitat in Mexico, where many areas have been lost as arid grassland is converted into irrigated agricultural fields.
With more money available, better monitoring, and a few new partnerships, legions of Aplomado falcons could someday be soaring over the New Mexico and west Texas desert once again. Defenders will be working hard to ensure resources are available to make that happen sooner rather than later.
Learn more what you can do to help accelerate the recovery of America’s imperiled wildlife by joining our Conservation Crossroads campaign.