Let’s Make a Deal

Let’s Make a Deal

With a signature and a handshake, an innovative legal tool is allaying private landowners' fears of one of the nation's most powerful environmental laws to create critical wildlife habitat.

By Susan McGrath
Published: January-February 2008

"[They] turn private land into safe harbor for wildlife," says Robert Cook, the head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "But they provide safe harbor for landowners, too--assurance that if endangered species do come in, regulators won't come in after 'em saying you can't do this and you can't do that. We've needed something like these for a long time. I wish to hell we'd had them 20 years back."

"Safe harbor agreements have given us ranchers the luxury of being the guys in the white hats for a change," says Jon Means. They've done the same for resort owners in Florida, timber-lot owners in California, and just plain property owners in numerous states. Altogether, in the decade or so since the idea was dreamed up, almost four and a half million acres and 16 linear miles of stream in 21 states have been enrolled in the program.

Safe harbor isn't a one-size-fits-all panacea, and it doesn't rectify every conflict between property rights and the rights of endangered species. In the Boiling Spring Lakes case, for instance, many small, individual building lots in the downtown already lie within the territories of existing woodpecker groups, which require not only nesting but also foraging habitat; it's not feasible to have safe harbor agreements there. And public awareness of the program could be better. Again, landowners in Boiling Spring Lakes appear not to have known they had better options than the chainsaw. Despite such limitations, safe harbor agreements now cover 59 endangered species, including such former pariahs as the northern spotted owl, the Mexican gray wolf, the golden-cheeked warbler, the Karner blue butterfly, and, yes, the red-cockaded woodpecker, which now benefits from safe harbor agreements in nine southeastern states. So far only for the aplomado falcon, the Mexican gray wolf, and the nene (a Hawaiian goose) is safe harbor being invoked to reintroduce an extirpated species.

The aplomado's case has gained special urgency. In a dramatic turn of events, the small wild population that has hung on in the Chihuahuan grasslands in northern Mexico is rapidly being wiped out by a community of Mennonite farmers sinking deep wells for irrigation and plowing up the grasslands for crops. Within the past year eight of the 25 known breeding pairs of aplomado falcons in Chihuahua have disappeared. Now, it seems, restoring a healthy population in the United States may be the bird's only chance of survival in the region. Without the safe harbor agreements, there would be even less hope--if any at all.


Rolling down the dusty ranch road in a standard-issue white pickup, Angel Montoya recounts the aplomado's history. A tall, handsome, intense man in his mid-40s, his own history intersects curiously with the aplomado's. As a student intern at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas in 1989, he struck up a conversation with a visiting ornithologist--Pete Jenny, now president of The Peregrine Fund. "Where are you from?" Jenny asked. Deming, New Mexico, Montoya replied. "You know," said Jenny, "the last known nesting of the aplomado falcon was in your hometown." In 1991 Montoya documented an aplomado in White Sands, New Mexico--the first recorded in the United States since 1952, he says with pride.

"There weren't any studies done on aplomado falcons before they disappeared, so no one can say why," Montoya says. "There's probably a number of things that happened."

The northern aplomado falcon's historic range in the United States was confined to just the coastal savannas of Texas and the dry shortgrass prairies of the Southwest. (A southern aplomado falcon inhabits grasslands of Central and South America.) By the turn of the century some of the coastal savanna had been converted to farmland, and cattle grazed the remaining grasslands there and the dry shortgrass prairie to the southwest--too many cattle in too many places. Overgrazing led to erosion, which opened the soil to invasive creosote and mesquite, inadvertently abetted by ranchers suppressing range fires. Increasingly, brush replaced the grasslands, creating a new landscape aplomados couldn't hunt in as effectively. Loss of native vegetation made the populations of the songbirds, insects, and lizards on which aplomado prey harder to catch, Jenny says.

Fortunately a thousand miles away, in southern Mexico, an isolated population of northern aplomado falcons survived. In the 1980s ornithologists captured 25 chicks there and established a breeding program at The Peregrine Fund in Idaho. The aplomados proved fussier about breeding behind bars than peregrines did, but the falcon specialists persevered and in the summer of 1993 began releasing captive-bred chicks at the Laguna Atascosa refuge, where thousands of acres of restored grasslands lay under the protection of the federal government. They used a falconry technique called hacking--confining month-old chicks in high, ventilated boxes for a week or more, then opening the boxes and continuing to place food on the towers while the birds gradually learned to hunt on their own. One hundred aplomados had been released by 1997, and two captive-bred adults were rearing young. It looked like the reintroduction was working, and the program took off.

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