Raptor quest

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is proposing a new rule that would allow out-of-state falconers to capture hawks, falcons and owls in Montana for the first time.

"Montana is one of just a handful of states that does not allow nonresidents to come into Montana...to capture raptors for the sport of falconry," says FWP Commercial Wildlife Permitting Manager Tim Feldner.

Raptors have sharp eyesight and perceive movement much more quickly than humans. That makes them welcome companions for falconers, who train birds of prey to hunt wild quarry. It's an art that takes years to master.

If the proposed rule is implemented, licensed out-of-state falconers would be allowed to capture prairie falcons, goshawks, kestrels, Merlins and red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks, in addition to gyrfalcons. Peregrine falcons would remain off limits to nonresidents.

Out-of-state falconers were legally prohibited from capturing raptors in the state until the Montana Legislature eliminated the restriction this year. A primary reason listed during the legislative discussion was reciprocity: If Montana allows nonresidents to capture birds, Montana falconers will then be allowed to go into other states, like Wyoming, to trap raptors.

The proposal worries Kate Davis from Raptors of the Rockies, in Florence. "To me, it's sort of an agenda put through by a few overzealous falconers," she says.

Davis, a master falconer, says her biggest concern stems from the impact the proposal could have on the gyrfalcon population. Four is the maximum number of gyrfalcons that have been counted in any one year in Montana during the last decade, according to the Audubon Society's Christmas bird count, Davis says. The large, light-colored raptors live in cool climates and are already struggling with climate change. Moving them from Montana's chillier climate southward could leave the birds more vulnerable to disease, she says. "These guys might be in big trouble."

In response to concerns about maintaining raptor populations, Feldner says FWP is proposing a cap of three birds per species. In light of that and the fact that there's not much demand—Montana falconers have captured fewer than 50 raptors during the last three years—Feldner doesn't anticipate the rule change will have much impact. Scientific evidence shows that the number of birds that could be taken by out-of-staters is "insignificant," he says.

The deadline for public comment on FWP's proposal is Dec. 30. For more information, visit fwp.mt.gov.

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