When it dives from its perch at nearly 200 miles an hour and nails its hapless prey, the peregrine falcon well illustrates Alfred Tennyson's phrase about "nature, red in tooth and claw." And when it does this from a city skyscraper and its main targets are pigeons, the sleek bird proves that wildness is not limited to wilderness.
But the small raptor for whom an Air Force fighter jet is named also symbolizes the political dogfight over the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Supporters of the controversial environmental law say the good-news story of the peregrine shows that federal protection measures work. This falcon, which once dwindled to 324 nesting pairs in North America, now numbers some 1,600 pairs.
"This is a real milestone in the history of the Endangered Species Act," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said this week in announcing the federal government's intent to "delist" the peregrine. But Mr. Babbitt's political opponents who want to rein in the species-protection law say the peregrine's turnaround has little, if anything, to do with the ESA. And they charge that Babbitt is touting as "successes" instances where species shouldn't have been listed in the first place.
In a recent letter to the secretary, 30 members of the congressional Western Caucus accused Babbitt of engaging in a "careless exploitation of the Endangered Species Act for the purpose of advancing a political agenda." Many of the most contentious legal fights over endangered species have been in the West, but the ESA has been a prime target of property-rights advocates and their congressional supporters across the country. The Western Caucus, for example, has 80 members - all but one of them Republican - from states as far east as Florida.
In May, Babbitt announced that more than two-dozen animal and plant species had recovered to the point where federal protection soon could be lessened, if not lifted entirely. "We can now finally prove one thing conclusively: The Endangered Species Act works. Period," he said. Two months later, however, the National Wilderness Institute - a conservative environmental think tank - announced that some of those species had either gone extinct or had been erroneously listed.
In a letter of apology earlier this month, US Fish and Wildlife Service director Jamie Rappaport Clark said she was "personally embarrassed by this unfortunate error." Earlier this week, Babbitt called it a matter of "innocent errors."
In the case of the peregrine falcon, no one disputes the fact that the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972 played a big role in preventing likely extinction. But wildlife specialists also say that a major captive-breeding program, together with habitat preservation, a ban against hunting, and other stringent protection measures that come with an ESA listing, were important elements as well.
"The act remains the best protection for many vulnerable species across our country and can be fairly credited both with recovering species and with stabilizing the populations of numerous other species," said Ms. Clark, a wildlife biologist.
Although it remains in force, the ESA is several years overdue for legislative reauthorization. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and the Clinton administration have agreed on a bill that would answer some of the objections of those who say the law is too Draconian - especially in its impact on individual property owners. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has approved the bill. But with elections this fall, time may be running out for passage in this Congress. To peregrine falcons, of course, all of the partisan wrangling means little. Once headed the way of the dodo, falcons now can be seen diving from building tops in cities around the country.