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The Peregrine Falcon and
a Shameless Babbitt

Self-serving press releases and the
secretary’s outrageous claims.

By Robert J. Smith

The ESA is the single most controversial environmental law in the nation. It is widely recognized that the Act doesn’t work. There have been repeated efforts since the 102nd Congress, and especially since the 104th, to reform, even to replace it. Scores of mainly western congressmen were elected on a reform pledge. There have been massive demonstrations and rallies against the ESA all across the country, largely by small landowners, homeowners, retirees, homebuilders, farmers, ranchers and tree farmers who have been prevented from using their property, harvesting their trees, using their water, grazing their cattle, managing their fields, or even building a home on their own lot.

Because of this massive opposition to the ESA, even leading environmentalists and state and federal wildlife officials have recognized that the Act is broken, because its perverse incentives, penalizing landowners for being good stewards and leaving wildlife habitat on their lands, have caused most landowners to live in fear of the Act. Therefore, all too many take steps to make their lands unattractive to wildlife for fear of losing their land and property. The Act is bad for species and bad for people.

Unfortunately, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and many of his allies, have undertaken a massive disingenuous effort to mislead the public by flooding the nation with press releases, appearing with photogenic animals and declaring the Endangered Species Act a great success. An often gullible, and sometimes compliant, media has then repeated Babbitt’s misinformation to a hopeful and unknowing public.

Good news is welcome. From our school children up, the public is steadily bombarded with catastrophic scenarios of extinction (and every other conceivable environmental calamity), and thus they flock to the good news, unknowingly being deceived.

Over the last few years, in the face of the congressional ESA reform movement, Babbitt has shamelessly proclaimed the Act a success at every opportunity–the bald eagle, the gray whale, even a group of extinct species. It is difficult to judge which of Babbitt’s false claims has been most egregious–but his peregrine scam probably retires the cup.

DDT caused the endangerment of the peregrine, bald eagle, brown pelican and a few other species which, on accumulating sufficient amounts of the chemical, laid thin-shelled eggs that failed to hatch. The Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in December, 1972. The ESA was passed in December 1973.

A network of falconers, raptor biologists and conservationists concerned with the peregrine’s disappearance, created the private Peregrine Fund in 1970, with the sole goal of restoring the peregrine. Their goal was not national land-use control or ending timber harvesting or cattle ranching; it was seeing the peregrine race through the skies again. Working in voluntary association with thousands of individuals across the U.S. and in foreign countries, they developed the techniques to successfully breed peregrines in captivity and then developed the techniques to release young birds into the wild.

For over 30 years the Peregrine Fund restored and recovered the peregrine. Not only did they achieve this with no help from the ESA (other than a little money mostly obtained through their friends in Congress), but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and many environmentalists opposed the Peregrine Fund at nearly every stage of its heroic efforts at private conservation. Efforts to get permits to move captive birds to breeding facilities or to capture a few wild birds to bring genetic diversity into the captive breeding stock were wrapped in interminable red-tape delays. Interior even set up a sting, the infamous “falcon scam,” Operation Falcon, in a vain and shameful attempt to discredit falconers and the Peregrine Fund.

Having achieved their goal, with peregrine populations near or at or above historic levels in various states, the Peregrine Fund announced they had accomplished the task of restoring the peregrine two years ago and were ending captive breeding and release programs. They then began planning a gala North American Peregrine Falcon Victory Celebration at their world HQ in Boise on August 20-21, 1999.

As the date approached, no one knew what Babbitt would do. The peregrine was already recovered, but FWS officials and environmentalists worship the ESA for its national land-use control powers and many wanted to keep the peregrine on the endangered or threatened list, regardless of the facts, so they could retain the authority to regulate private landowners and industry.

At the last second, Babbitt announced that he was crashing the party. Two days before the event Interior’s press release still said only that Babbitt would announce his decision to delist or not. However, in a last second recognition of an obvious reality, Babbitt came racing after the departing victory train, grabbed hold of the caboose and pulled himself aboard, huffing and puffing. And then tried to pull off one of the great pieces of flim-flammery in American history by attempting to pass himself and the ESA off as the engineer of the peregrine’s recovery and the victory train.

There is simply no credibility whatsoever to Babbitt’s truly outrageous, and indeed, offensive statement, that his decision to recognize the obvious reality of the situation and remove the peregrine falcon from the list of endangered and threatened species marked “one of the most dramatic success stories of the Endangered Species Act” and proves that the Act works. He is attempting to steal credit away from the rightful heroes.

The Endangered Species Act didn’t work. The Peregrine Fund worked. Private conservation worked. That saved the peregrine. Just as private efforts saved the wood duck and bluebirds, as Ducks Unlimited preserved millions of acres of wetlands for wildlife, and on and on. Voluntary association and private action can and do work where government force and compulsion fail. Secretary Babbitt should apologize to the American people and especially to the Peregrine Fund, its founder Dr. Tom Cade, and all the thousands of volunteers who worked tirelessly for over a quarter century to recover the peregrine.

Robert J. Smith is Senior Environmental Scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-free market, private property public policy group in Washington, D.C. Smith is an avid birder, past president of a county nature club/Audubon chapter and writes regularly on private conservation success stories and the role of private stewardship in protecting environmental amenities. He can be reached at CEI, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste. 1250, Washington, D.C. 20036, 202-331-1010 or <>.


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