If you ask me to identify the most effective conservationists around, I’ll answer without hesitation: Falconers.
Falconers? Those fixtures of Renaissance fairs and Saturday Night Live skits?
No, not them. The falconers I’m referring to form a serious, obsessive subculture who train raptors to hunt various game.
Falconry takes anywhere from two to seven years to learn. And keeping a bird of prey is a challenging task requiring constant attention.
You can’t be a casual falconer like, say, you can be a casual bowler.
I once rode along with a wild-eyed stranger as he enthusiastically described his life’s various addictions and vices—most of them unprintable here. He said he quit them all, without problem. Except falconry. That addiction, he said, had no cure.
Such intensity extends to conservation. For instance, in the 1960s, peregrine falcons were gone from the eastern United States and declining in the West.
Until falconers got involved, that is.
Falconers like Tom Cade initiated and perfected captive breeding of peregrines and reintroduced them to suitable habitat (including cities), a program so successful that the bird was removed from the endangered species list in 1999.
In Idaho, a possible endangered species listing for sage grouse has generated predictable contention between environmentalists and wise users. But falconers ignore the controversy and put conservation on the ground—partnering with the Conservancy on some of the West’s most ambitious grouse habitat protection efforts. (And the grouse are prospering there).
Why are falconers—an admittedly small group of folks—so effective at bird conservation?
To me, it’s an obvious answer, yet one I fear is increasingly lost among environmentalists: Nothing instills a conservation ethic like hands-on interaction with wild creatures and wild places.
But to make the most effective life-long conservationists, the best environmental education is one out in nature, complete with mud and blood and feathers.
(Photo: Falconer at the Conservancy’s Crooked Creek Project. Credit: Sus Danner/TNC)