Raptor Rapture

Jerry Ostwinkle glared out his front window across the street at the green trucks with white government license plates that had staked out his home for the past several days. It wouldn't be long before three federal wildlife agents would be walking up his driveway.

The knock came, and seeing the swell of 38 millimeter revolvers on their backs, Ostwinkle armed himself with a .45 and opened the door. They had come for his golden eagle.

Ostwinkle took them around back where the young female raptor perched, recently rescued from a backyard swimming pool in Tucson and brought to Ostwinkle by a wildlife rehabilitator there. Ostwinkle, a master falconer and recognized expert on birds of prey, didn't try to stop the agents. But he wasn't about to let them carry her away in the small box they brought, which contained a perch so tiny in diameter the eagle would have wrapped its 3-inch talons around it and stabbed itself with its own claws.

Ostwinkle gave the agents his own bird box, and seeing their hesitation, he even picked up the eagle and placed it inside. The agents eventually took the bird to a falconer in New Mexico for safekeeping. And that wasn't the end of it. Ostwinkle's life gradually would be turned upside down.

It was like an amateur drug bust, Ostwinkle says. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been monitoring him for months as part of "Arizona Falconers," a massive sting operation that targeted several high-profile falconers. The investigation produced numerous charges, but few convictions -- court records indicate that the evidence, in most cases, was considered too minor to warrant prosecution.

By federal law, eagles are a protected species. Ostwinkle, however, is a hunted man.

Despite more than 3,000 hours of experience with golden eagles and permits that allowed him to have the rare birds, Ostwinkle says officials from the federal wildlife service have done everything they can to keep him away from birds of prey.

They have revoked his master-level falconry and eagle permits, hauled him into court with falsified documents and come to his door twice, each time to take away one of his golden eagles. "What they did was nothing less than abuse," he says. "You can't get rid of them. They will not go away."

Ostwinkle is tangling with an agency that is bullish in its regulation of falconry, an ancient sport practiced today by fewer than 6,000 people nationwide. Stringent regulations have put falconers, a rugged and often anti-government breed, at odds with regulators, who have never been completely comfortable seeing wild birds under human control.

"The feds think what we do with these birds is a selfish thing and we shouldn't have them," says Ostwinkle. "People are simply flying birds, minding their own business and spending their own money. They don't deserve what they get."

What falconers get is everything from paperwork hassles to search warrants on their homes. State and federal wildlife officials say the enforcement is necessary to ensure that migratory birds are treated properly. Regulation keeps falconers honest, they say. The Arizona Falconers Association had gotten lax in reporting the acquisition and transfer of birds, and the sting operation forced them to police themselves and improve their image, says Mike Senn, assistant director of field operations for Arizona Game and Fish.

"It made the Arizona Falconers Association clean up their act," he says.

The bigger problem, regulators say, is that falconers can get too close to their birds, treating them like personal property. And some end up making the wrong decisions.

"Birds are something that are a public trust. That's something people have trouble understanding," says Cyndi Perry, chief of the bird conservation branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "That bird is not that person's bird, it's the country's bird, and they are under permit to hold it."

But falconers consider the birds their personal responsibility, and therefore their personal property. Asking a falconer to detach himself from his bird is unrealistic, falconers say. The birds are their passion.

Rex, Ostwinkle's second golden eagle, was like one of his children. Saved from almost certain death as a baby, Rex was raised by Ostwinkle until the bird was five years old. On April 29, 1998, federal wildlife agents took Ostwinkle's permits and seized Rex, leaving Ostwinkle feeling like the parent of a lost child. "It crushed me for them to take Rex. It absolutely killed me," says Ostwinkle, his booming voice softening a bit. "That was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life."

Standing in his shop in dusty jeans and a worn tee shirt emblazoned with a drawing of Rex, the 41-year-old builder talks with quiet frustration about the collapse of his life since Rex was seized. His children suffered without the bird, which had become their playmate. Work suffered as he lost sleep and yelled all day at the workers he supervised. And his wife nearly left him.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley