Raptor Rapture

Jerry Ostwinkle's life fell apart when the government seized his golden eagle; now he's fighting for Rex and the rights of falconers.

Ostwinkle and his friend and fellow falconer Gary Lollman, whose permits were also revoked, started drinking too much, Ostwinkle says. Their lives, consumed by an obsession with birds of prey, had been stripped away.

The State of Arizona sued the two falconers for their part in having Rex filmed at the Grand Canyon for a commercial for the Bravo Card, a now-discontinued credit card that Dean Witter was promoting at the time.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department had records of the financial arrangements the falconers made for the shoot, and they caught Lollman advertising raptors for filming purposes, with a credit for the Bravo Card commercial. The department says their permits did not allow the commercial use of raptors. Ostwinkle was also charged with failing to register one of his falcons by having the department put a band on its leg within the federal government's five-day limit. A court in Page found them both guilty.

Jerry Ostwinkle ties a device to his bird that falconers use to track their raptors.
Leah Fasten
Jerry Ostwinkle ties a device to his bird that falconers use to track their raptors.
Gary Lollman uses his teeth to tighten the hood on a hawk.
Paolo Vescia
Gary Lollman uses his teeth to tighten the hood on a hawk.

Then Lollman and Ostwinkle discovered that dates on the department's investigative reports had been altered to meet the statute of limitations. The state failed to file suit within the one-year requirement, so officials made it appear that the investigation began later, thereby falling within the statute of limitations, according to court documents.

The case was dismissed on appeal in December 1998.

The ruling provided little solace for Lollman, who was still facing the repercussions of a search warrant served on his home one Sunday night in 1995. Federal agents scoured every corner of his house from 7 p.m. until midnight, looking through cupboards, the freezer and his wife's underwear drawer. They even opened her box of tampons and peeled each one open. Lollman says they were looking for any evidence that he was commercializing wildlife.

They found a videotape of the Bravo commercial shoot, and they seized eagle feathers and several raptor skulls and wings, items they argued were illegally in his possession. Lollman used the bones for educational presentations, he says, and he was allowed to have the feathers as part of his eagle permit. Lollman was on a waiting list for a golden eagle, and Ostwinkle had given him the feathers so that Lollman would have replacements if his eagle's feathers were ever damaged.

A federal court found him guilty, giving the Fish and Wildlife Service one of its few convictions as part of Arizona Falconers. Lollman got a fine, probation and suspension of his license for a year, but the convictions sunk even deeper into his life. When the Camp Verde Town Council and the local newspaper caught wind of the ruling, Lollman was pushed out of his eight-year job as the town's recreation and maintenance director. He has since been hired in a similar job for the Yavapai-Apache Indian Community, but his days of doing field research on spotted owls for Humboldt University, being called "bird man" for his presentations at schools and being president of the Arizona Falconers Association are over, he says.

"I became passionate . . . then it all gets yanked away," says Lollman. "People could care less what happens to us."

Lollman has given up the fight. His family grew tired of the suspicious clicks during telephone conversations, and of being constantly paranoid that federal agents were watching over them, he says.

But Ostwinkle will stop at nothing to get his eagle and his permits back. After years of spending more time in the wild with birds of prey than with his family, Ostwinkle says the last thing he will tolerate is a bureaucrat behind a desk telling him what to do with his raptors.

"Rex was my property," he says. "He was permitted to me, and I didn't do anything that was not falconry."

To win, Ostwinkle must beat the federal government in court, a feat that his fellow falconers say is impossible. "Jerry will be doing this 'til the day he dies," says Lollman. "He's so tenacious, but I have concerns. I don't think you can take on the government and win."

Ostwinkle is taking on an opponent that is often zealous in its mission to protect migratory birds. Oversight of falconers is an important part of that mission, says Steve Middleton, a supervisor and special agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's a pretty strictly regulated sport because falconers are permitted to do something that no one else is allowed to do: take a wild raptor from the wild."

But for too long, Fish and Wildlife Service officials have gone too far, Ostwinkle says, and it's time to hold them accountable for their strong-arm tactics. When federal wildlife agents took away Rex, they trampled on his constitutional protection against unlawful seizure of his property, he says.

"What if it was my firearm?" Ostwinkle asks. "They took away my birthright the day they walked in my backyard and took away my bird."

The drama that unfolded between Ostwinkle and the federal government is full of patriotic symbolism: The Fish and Wildlife Service, the guardian of public resources, takes away a citizen's eagle, a symbol of American independence. Now that private citizen is fighting his own revolutionary war to get his eagle and his freedom back from what he considers a tyrannical government agency.

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