One small group of hunters—93 to be exact—is unique among Montana's hunters. They are licensed falconers and their hunting season continues until March 31.
Falconry is the art and practice of hunting for wild quarry with a trained hawk or falcon. The sport is thousands of years old—those medieval images of the hooded raptor perched on a heavily gloved fist may come to mind.
Falconers say associating with hawks and falcons and witnessing their hunting skills is what draws them to falconry. For most falconers, taking a pheasant or grouse home to eat is a secondary consideration.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Upland Game Bird hunting regulations cover falconry in a single paragraph. All areas open to hunting upland game bird with a firearm are open to either-sex hunting by falconry from Sept. 1 to March 31. Falconry is governed by state and federal law.
"I think of falconry as a specialized form of bird watching," said Kate Davis, a master falconer from Florence near Missoula. "My peregrine falcon and Harris' hawk take cues from me in the field and the hunt is thrilling, but most of all it is a privilege to be part of their hunt."
In level flight, the normal speed for a peregrine is 40-55 miles per hour. In an attack dive, a peregrine may be traveling 200-250 miles per hour.
Davis said she enjoys hunting with her captive-bred peregrine falcon and her hunting partner's English setter.
"The setter gets the birds up in the air while the falcon flies high overhead spotting," she said. "Dogs help, especially when hunting with a peregrine falcon, as most prey birds avoid taking flight when they spot a falcon in the air."
Ralph Rogers, a master falconer in Winifred, said he knew a falconer who hunted a goshawk, a fierce raptor, with a dachshund. The goshawk went after rabbits but didn't hurt the dachshund.
Falconers have a unique connection to their bird and the falcon or hawk always comes first. Those interested in becoming apprentice falconers must:
* find a sponsor who is a master falconer to train them for two years,
* pass a 100-question exam on raptors, their habits, nutrition needs, care, health and mechanics of the sport, and
* build a facility to hold raptors and have it inspected.
After a prospective falconer completes these steps, he or she can apply for the state and federal apprentice falconry license. Once licensed, the apprenticed falconer is ready to obtain a raptor to train. Licensed falconers may purchase a captive-bred bird or capture a young raptor from the wild. An apprentice falconer in Montana is limited to working with a red-tailed hawk or an American kestrel.
"During training, the bird learns in very short order that if it follows a human it will get something to prey on," said Marlow Stevens, a master falconer in Bozeman. "They also learn to come to roost on your gloved fist after the hunt because they get a food reward there, too."
General and master falconers may choose to hunt with the Coopers hawk, goshawks, gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons and other raptors.
Stevens said the first time he flew a large falcon after completing his apprenticeship, he released it south of Pocatello, Id. It was a little too late in the day and the falcon wasn't hungry enough to hunt. While drifting around in the air it found an easy ride on a thermal and took it all the way to Canada. Stevens hired a bush pilot to follow her, using the micro-telemetry many falconers attach to their birds to track her.
"She came right to me once I was in eye sight again. It was my mistake," he said.
For more on falconry, go to the FWP web site at fwp.mt.gov and use the search words "wildlife permitting." To learn more about raptors, refer to the online Animal Field Guide on the home page under Online Services.
Editors Note on the peregrine falcon:
The American peregrine falcon population began to decline in the 1940s, and was listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1970. After a successful recovery effort, the peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list in 1999. However, falconers cannot legally remove peregrine falcons from the wild in Montana.
FWP is reviewing the current status of peregrine falcons and recently completed an extensive population survey with the help of falconers in the state. FWP also recently took public comment on a proposal to allow licensed Montana falconers a limited opportunity to capture and possess wild peregrine falcons for falconry. If FWP goes on to develop a proposed rule, an environmental assessment would be prepared and the public would again have an opportunity to comment.