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Partnerships Offer Safer Future For Swainson's Hawk
by Brian Woodbridge

A Forest Service volunteer releases a tagged Swainson's hawk in Argentina.
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In 1994, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service biologists on the Klamath National Forest noticed alarming losses of monitored adult Swainson's hawks on the Butte Valley National Grassland in northern California. To discover what was happening to the hawks, they attached tiny satellite transmitters to two adult hawks and tracked their migratory movements to the pampas, or plains, of Argentina. With support from USDA Forest Service International Programs, agency biologists traveled to La Pampa, Argentina, to investigate the hawks' winter habitat and possible threats encountered there. What they discovered was massive mortality of hawks during the winters of 1994-95 and 1995-96 caused by the pesticide monocrotophos (MCP) used locally on alfalfa and other crops. In a single monitoring trip, the team counted over 3,000 dead hawks and from this data estimated that as many as 20,000 Swainson's hawks were being killed each year.

The discovery of widespread pesticide contamination and subsequent loss of Swainson's hawks prompted concern among many conservation groups and government agencies. The USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Canadian Wildlife Service, and several Argentine agencies contributed funding and personnel to assess the threat and to develop solutions, eventually leading to the formation of the International Swainson's Hawk Working Group. Working group members launched a monitoring program in the pampas to detect further incidents and to evaluate pesticide usage patterns in the area. Cooperators in the United States later placed satellite transmitters on 44 hawks from 7 States and two Canadian provinces to allow for better identification of areas where Swainson's hawks congregate in winter. The Argentine agency INTA (equivalent to the USDA) launched a program called SOS Aguiluchos (Save Our Hawks) consisting of public education and agricultural information outreach aimed at reducing or eliminating improper use of MCP and other potent chemicals. Simultaneously, INTA began enforcing restrictions on the use of these pesticides. In a public-private partnership, the international group of cooperators worked with Novartis Corporation, manufacturer of MCP, and product distributors in Argentina to achieve a voluntary reduction of MCP use in Swainson's hawks' wintering areas.

With urging from the American Bird Conservancy, the pesticide industry agreed to remove MCP from the shelves in the Argentine pampas and to educate farmers about proper use of other pesticides. From the winter of 1996-97 through the present, only small, scattered incidents of pesticide exposure involving small numbers of hawks were recorded in Argentina. Use of MCP has been reduced to approximately 2 percent of previous levels, and the local government maintains an active farmer education and monitoring program.

In 1999, Novartis announced plans to phase out all production of MCP and five other highly toxic pesticides in favor of newer, less toxic chemicals. Support from USDA Forest Service International Programs was instrumental in the initiation of the hemispheric effort to help the Swainson's hawk. As a result of cooperation among governments and private institutions, a long-term solution to Argentina's pesticide problem was developed, and the international public is far more aware of the implications of international trade in agricultural products and technology to our global ecology. Many view the cooperative approach taken by the International Swainson's Hawk Working Group to be a model for future situations of this kind, where the flow of migratory birds and world trade require full collaboration to achieve the conservation of biodiversity on a global scale.

Brian Woodbridge is a wildlife biologist in the Forest Supervisor's Office, Klamath National Forest, California.

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