Monday, February 04, 2008

The Sport of Emperors in Eastern Idaho

In addition to pursuing one of the world's oldest sports, falconers have been responsible for some of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories. Recently, The Nature Conservancy's Sus Danner joined falconers in eastern Idaho for a day afield. This is her report:

Recently I visited eastern Idaho with Jan Peppler, our Director of Philanthropy, to tag along with some friends on a hunting trip. This wasn’t your usual hunting trip, though: our hosts brought neither rifle nor bow – they brought birds. We were near the town of Dubois in eastern Idaho to meet up with Keith and Hubert, two friends of the Conservancy who practice the art and sport of falconry. Eastern Idaho is a stronghold for sage grouse, and it is this game bird we seek.

The Nature Conservancy in Idaho has made conservation of sage grouse habitat a priority, but we can’t do it alone. We are fortunate to live in a state that has so many conservation-minded hunters and fishermen working alongside scientists to protect wildlife habitat here. There is perhaps no better example of this partnership than that of falconers and conservationists.

According to the Peregrine Fund, people have been flying hawks in the Americas since the 16th century. Because falconers hunt wild game with their birds, unfragmented habitat has always been critical to the sport. Falconers support conservation of wildlife habitat as well as the protection of birds of prey in the wild. In fact, falconers were instrumental in recovering the peregrine falcon from near extinction in the 1970s and 1980s. In areas where power lines, roads, and other types of disturbance infringe on wildlife habitat, falconry becomes less feasible. Here in Idaho, above-ground power lines especially pose a hazard to sage grouse, as the birds fly high enough to hit the lines. Not long ago, an above-ground power line was proposed near Medicine Lodge Creek, along a key sage grouse migration route. It was local falconers who called attention to the threat the line posed to wildlife, and local falconers who succeeded in getting that line buried underground.

The expansive sagebrush steppe of Idaho is where sage grouse thrive. Unlike many other birds, sage grouse cannot digest hard foods like seeds. Sage grouse are totally dependant upon sage steppe, as the birds subsist almost exclusively on sagebrush leaves during winter. The sagebrush steppe is critical habitat for sage grouse, the quarry for our hunter friends.

In the shade of the snow-blanketed mountains, the temperature was 1º F. In the sun, the temperature hovered around 32º F. “It’s a heat wave,” grinned Keith. Jan and I got into our warmest coats, snow boots and mittens. I brought along a Russian hat with earflaps, which was so warm it was worth the requisite teasing. We crunched out to the trucks to watch the falconers prepare for our day out in the sagebrush steppe. Below us on the Snake River plain, the giant stacks of hay bales looked like battleships and oil tankers on a bay.

Truck inventory: Four English pointer dogs, two gyrfalcons, one gyrfalcon/peregrine hybrid, one prairie falcon, one crate of homing pigeons, and one crate of pheasants. The falcons balanced comfortably on their Astroturf perches, even as the truck bounced along the rough dirt roads.

Usually the dogs are responsible for finding and pointing the grouse, but we didn’t use them at all this time; there were so many sage grouse that we could find them ourselves. Keith and Hubert taught me how to glass the sagebrush for the telltale gray and white shape of the grouse as they fed on sagebrush leaves. For an amateur, the grouse are difficult to spot, but the falconers could pick them out even at a distance.

Sage grouse are the largest grouse in North America, about the size of a domestic chicken. Their large size means they present a real challenge to the falconer, because a very large falcon must be used to hunt them. Keith and Hubert are experienced falconers, and use the largest falcon in the world, the gyrfalcon, when hunting sage grouse.

Once the falconers found the grouse, Keith exited the truck, moving slowly and quietly. Through my binoculars I could see the grouse looking cautiously at the truck as Keith opened the camper shell and released his falcon. “Once the falcon is up, the grouse will lie down,” Hubert told me, and as I watched, the grouse did just that: flattened themselves to the snowy ground and became as still as statues. The white gyrfalcon ascended until it was a tiny kite-like shape in the blue sky. It flew in broad Lissajous curves in the distance as Hubert and Keith walked through the deep snow towards the immobile grouse.

When the men got close, the grouse flushed, their wings clattering. Keith yelled, “Hey!”, and the gyrfalcon immediately tucked its wings and went into a stoop, aiming for a flying grouse at the bottom of the dive. The movement was so swift I could barely focus my eyes on it. At the last moment, the grouse dodged to the side, and the falcon swept up in an arc above the sagebrush. Keith held out a dead quail on his gloved fist, and the gyrfalcon flew lightly to it. Once on Keith’s fist, the gyrfalcon mantled the quail and devoured it, right down to the feet and primary feathers.

The falconers flew all four birds over the next few hours, and the exhilaration of watching each bird hunt did not wane as the day went on. Each bird had its own style and personality, especially Hubert’s gyrfalcon. When its stoop didn’t result in success, it pursued the grouse like an aerial greyhound, low along the ground and out of sight behind the mountains. Luckily, falconers use radio telemetry equipment to track their birds. Each falcon wears a radio transmitter with a dangling antenna around their neck.

The men were concerned that the falcon would fly too far from us and be lost. We drove quickly through the sagebrush, on rutted roads between deep snowdrifts that threatened to bog down even the high clearance pickup truck. We drove across a highway and into a system of rural roads through farm fields, always following the beeping of the radio receiver. As we drove, the beeping got more insistent. Blessedly, we saw a large silhouette on a power pole next to a lonely farmhouse. Hubert got out of the truck, used a lure to draw the falcon down to the snowy ground, and gently coaxed the falcon onto his gloved hand. We all breathed a sigh of relief as our day of hawking came to a cheerful end. Below, the happy reunion. --Sus Danner

Powerline/sage grouse photo by Hubert Quade; all other photos by Sus Danner.

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