Thursday, July 21, 2005

falconry, conservation and catch and release

This is one of those thorny issues that, for me, came to a head in 2001 when the California Hawking Club newsletter gave their take on the idea. The author reminded us that catch and release was illegal, and that all quarry, once taken into possession, must be killed immediately. Furthermore, he went out on a limb attempting to support the idea by calling it ecologically unsound, with a pitiful slippery-slope argument that an animal weakened and stressed by capture will succumb to diseases and will in turn infect the healthy population.

This is one of those places where the law is ridiculously more applicable to guns than falconry. There are quite a few such laws, but this one I believe needs serious correction. I don't think anyone could convince me that catch and release is a bad thing.

A hawk trained to step off the quarry does little injury and, in my experience, allows a falconer to release game between 50% and 75% of the time, even when taking a conservative view of injuries one considers life-threatening. A careful examination of the captured quarry (looking for signs of shock, potential places where serious infection will set in, broken bones) will give a correct judgement about 98% of the time.

C&R sustains the population. In my early days as an overenthusiastic falconer, I caught and killed an average of 35 jackrabbits per year in one particular field. Over the course of three years, I saw the population plummet, and knew it was all my doing. After I began catching and releasing, over the next three or four years I could see the jack population rising. At that point the field was destroyed for a business park, but if it had not, I have no doubt it would have returned to its original numbers. I know falconers who marked caught quarry and thus knew with certainty that the animal had been caught again, and again, and again.

I agree that C&R does make the game more wary, and smarter. However, I consider this a good thing (even on those days when I just want to get it over with.) You're training the rabbits to elude your bird. Your bird must become correspondingly more creative and skilled in its hunting. Any falconer can tell you that a popular field is more difficult.

Some rhetorical questions:

What if my bird catches an endangered animal? This forces me to break one law in order to comply with another. In my case, burrowing owls is the thorny issue, of which my hawks have caught at least five, all released. Killing the burrowing owl is just as much a crime (IMO, greater) than releasing.

[A personal horror story, unrelated to this, was seeing a field get a fence slapped around it and signs posted prominently: Endangered Species Area. Within the course of 18 months, it was flattened, and a shopping center, with a Lowe's and a Costco, had been built on it.]

Sport fishing has had a long and wise tradition of C&R. Naturally so, since they are far more populous than falconers and will put more stress on a limited resource. Yet it is just as illegal, so why is it that the sport fishing press has no compunctions about discussing C&R openly?

I'll happily teach anyone how to train a hawk to step off. Do try catch and release, or talk to someone who does it. It's always worthwhile to give an animal a chance at life rather than destroy it immediately and irrevocably.

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