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Backpacker Magazine – May 2008

Secret Agent Man

Animals can't talk. But Ed Newcomer can. As an elite U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service detective, he goes undercover to protect threatened raptors, bears, even butterflies–and bring poachers and smugglers to court. Inside the agency's latest covert operation.

by: Bruce Barcott

Photos by Dan Winters
Photos by Dan Winters
A Cooper's Hawk talon given to Newcomer by a pigeon fancier
A Cooper's Hawk talon given to Newcomer by a pigeon fancier
The evidence room at the USFWS Office in L.A.
The evidence room at the USFWS Office in L.A.
Agents Erin Dean and Sam Jojola with a seized stuffed bald eagle
Agents Erin Dean and Sam Jojola with a seized stuffed bald eagle

The more time "Ted Nelson" spent with roller pigeon fanciers, the more they liked him. Ted got along with everyone. He paid respect to the top pigeon flyers. He made those around him feel like experts.

The feeling wasn't mutual. The deeper Newcomer got into the hobby, the more he became convinced that hawk and falcon killing was ingrained in the culture. Then he met a fellow Fish and Wildlife Service special agent named Dirk Hoy, who worked out of the Service's Oregon office, near Portland. Hoy offhandedly mentioned that he was looking into a strange new case. "I ran into this section of society that seems to be killing hawks on mass levels," he said.

"You're not going to believe this," Newcomer said, "but I'm doing the same thing."

The two agreed to collaborate. "At that point we realized this wasn't just a local problem," Newcomer recalled. "This was a Pacific flyway problem. We've got hawks and falcons migrating from Canada to Mexico, and all the way they're getting hammered by these pigeon guys."

The two agents put out calls to colleagues around the country. Anecdotal evidence indicated that birds of prey were being killed by pigeon breeders in Texas, New Mexico, Minnesota, New York, and Montana.

Newcomer's outrage grew, fueled by his knowledge of raptor history. From the 1950s to the 1970s, America's hawk and falcon populations crashed due to the affects of DDT. The peregrine falcon was nearly wiped out; by 1975, there were just 324 nesting pairs in North America. Over the next 30 years, the USFWS, state agencies, conservation groups, and falconers mounted an unprecedented effort to revive the peregrine falcon–bigger even than the campaign to save the bald eagle. It worked. In 1999, with at least 1,650 nesting pairs in the wild, the falcon was removed from the federal list of endangered species. "All that work, and here these guys are blasting them out of the sky by the dozens–maybe hundreds," Newcomer said.

He sought out the worst raptor killers, the most brazen shooters, and those in leadership positions. "If somebody told me, 'I'm the president of my local club,' they were on my radar screen. They're leading those organizations. People follow what they do."

Juan Navarro, president of the National Birmingham Roller Club, became one of Newcomer's primary targets. Early in his research, Newcomer discovered a posting attritubed to Navarro on a roller pigeon website. The post advised that traps had proven successful against Cooper's hawks, but that heavier artillery was necessary when going after falcons.

Whenever there was a roller pigeon competition, Ted was there. The competitions were tailor-made for undercover surveillance. "Everyone's walking freely into everyone else's backyard, checking things out, asking questions," Newcomer recalled.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, Special Agent Dirk Hoy was uncovering disturbing findings of his own. Over the past decade, Portland has revived its peregrine falcon population by encouraging the birds to nest in the bridges spanning the Willamette River, which runs through the center of the city. The birds have become beloved neighbors to Portland's half-million residents. Among pigeon breeders, though, the falcon's revival is a sore subject. Hoy discovered that the breeders weren't just grumbling about falcons–at least one fancier had shot one of the bridge falcons and bragged online about the "true bliss" it brought him. That brazen attitude made bird advocates furious. "We spend the last 15 years trying to restore these falcons, and they're out there killing the exact same birds!" said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland.

At that point, a disagreement broke out over strategy. Newcomer and Hoy could go deeper into the culture and rack up evidence against more breeders. But more birds died every week. "We didn't want to let the slaughter go on," recalled Hoy. "We needed to figure out how to get the best bang for the buck."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Carter, who was then chief of the Department of Justice's environmental crimes section in Southern California, pushed for quick arrests. "As soon as you've got solid evidence on somebody, I want you to take the case down," Carter told Newcomer.

Newcomer pushed back. "Look, if we catch one guy killing hawks, he'll be fined a couple thousand bucks and everybody in the club is going to say, 'Good thing they didn't catch me.' The only way we're going to have an impact is to show this is an organized, systemic effort that's condoned by the clubs. Let's take down as many as we can."

Carter relented. Newcomer bought himself some time. But he didn't have forever. He'd have to ramp things up.



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READERS COMMENTS

johnny law
Jan 17, 2012

they have enough time to infiltrate groups spy and colelct evidence, whynot get them to change their way of thinking like a real participating member of society? a jedi knight if you will "hey man you got to be kidding me youre doing this... dont you know... im going to spy on you then, if i find out this is true im telling! and i know about so and so selling... you're the head of the damn fan club you have the power to change everyones views" oh wait i know why, theres no bonus pay from the "punishment"

johnny law
Jan 17, 2012

they have enough time to infiltrate groups spy and colelct evidence, whynot get them to change their way of thinking like a real participating member of society? a jedi knight if you will "hey man you got to be kidding me youre doing this... dont you know... im going to spy on you then, if i find out this is true im telling! and i know about so and so selling... you're the head of the damn fan club you have the power to change everyones views" oh wait i know why, theres no bonus pay from the "punishment"

clue-by-four
Jun 14, 2010

Cats and small dogs shouldn't be left along for predators to snatch. They are themselves a nuisance if left to roam, not to mention other dangers out there for them - people are mean, especially to cats. It comes down to personal responsibility. Don't want Fluffy or Fido taken, don't leave them alone outdoors.

I don't think we're here to manage anything. I think we're supposed to respect life and live in harmony with other creatures. YMMV.

Steve Santhuff
Oct 25, 2009

It's really strange that someone can appreciate pigeons so much in their own collection and not appreciate raptors........such that they kill them and in such cruel ways.

I can picture those agents crawling in the field with AR15's, I'm sure they didn't stop in the field. The agents comming after me were stealing my animals (turtles) for several months and asked me to participate in some elaborate undercover purchases to help them that they later spun around on a search warrant. I've got 3 law suits on file against the various agents. I was finally given a trial after 3 years where I was acquitted on 21 charges. I've got my own opinion of Federal USFWS agents, which is that some of them are criminals far worse then the REAL wildlife violators they stalk. Illegal searches, lies to get a search warrant, planted evidence, false charges, false summary of laws to a judge or prosecutor to get search warrants or charges. Lieing in court. But killing raptors is horrible, especially with bleach and ammonia.......but I haven't heard the undercover recording myself, so I'm skeptical knowing what I know about the USFWS!

tou vang
Jul 16, 2009

yup, these men were protecting their birds like how bops are being protected. i know most of em and they're good mens. they are cheaters tho however because all roller fanciers fly rollers and have to face bops attacking their birds but those who shot them have less bops and is easier for them to fly their rollers.

tou vang
Jan 22, 2009

these men were protecting their birds. jus like protecting bop's. bop's should be spreaded in the forests more.

Andrew
Nov 14, 2008

The bible? Give me a break--thinking like that has left us with a withered planet where the only thing that thrives anymore are (some) humans.
We only think we're superior. Actually, some of us are obvioiusly worse than animals. The hawks, after all, are only killing their prey. Navarro and McGhee, with their bleach and stick--what they're doing is torture, absolutely malice. They make me sick.
And all for a bunch of flying rats--go DeFazio indeed.

Phil
Jul 28, 2008

Hey Billy, I have neighbor who hates pigeons and if they land on his barn he shots them no matter if your standing in you yard or not, doesn't matter. My self I shoot lose dogs, even if I know it's yours or not. Where does it end.

Samantha
Jul 16, 2008

I can't believe these negative comments. These guys are heroes! Great article as well, I'd love to see more articles like this in Backpacker.

Billy
Jul 14, 2008

I wonder if people would feel differently if they started losing small dogs and cats to hawks. Would you feel differently if your prized family member was killed by a hawk. It seems one small special interest group dictates the laws the rest have to follow. Kids are abused by family members every day and they get a slap on the wrist. Someone hurts an animal and look out. When did we elevate animals above ourselves. Who decides the value of one animal over another. I'm sure the pigeon fanciers love their animals just as much as everyone else. If a coyote kills a baby lamb nobody has a problem with a farmer killing the coyote. If a mosquito lands on my arm and I kill it some entomologist may have a problem with me. If you have a problem being at the top of the food chain, hide in the closet with your friends and leave the rest of us common sense god-fearing Americans alone. I'm tired of the whining. Before you respond to my comment think about what you ate today, what you're wearing and who that might offend. Hey folks, bottom line we are all offended by something. We were put on this earth to manage the creatures here not be managed by them.

Billy
Jul 14, 2008

I wonder if people would feel differently if they started losing small dogs and cats to hawks. Would you feel differently if your prized family member was killed by a hawk. It seems one small special interest group dictates the laws the rest have to follow. Kids are abused by family members every day and they get a slap on the wrist. Someone hurts an animal and look out. When did we elevate animals above ourselves. Who decides the value of one animal over another. I'm sure the pigeon fanciers love their animals just as much as everyone else. If a coyote kills a baby lamb nobody has a problem with a farmer killing the coyote. If a mosquito lands on my arm and I kill it some entomologist may have a problem with me. If you have a problem being at the top of the food chain, hide in the closet with your friends and leave the rest of us common sense god-fearing Americans alone. I'm tired of the whining. Before you respond to my comment think about what you ate today, what you're wearing and who that might offend. Hey folks, bottom line we are all offended by something. We were put on this earth to manage the creatures here not be managed by them.

Tooch
Jul 03, 2008

Undercover and out of control
http://www.tuccille.com/blog/2008/04/undercover-and-out-of-control.html
"Undercover police work has a long and dishonorable history. Undercover officers have infiltrated peaceful anti-war protests and political organizations and often acted as agents provocateurs -- engaging in or provoking illegal activity to give the authorities an excuse to move in and make arrests. Laws against victimless activities like drug use and prostitution almost require the use of undercover agents to induce people to engage in activities that would otherwise go undetected. Since such "crimes" are consensual, there's no wronged party to file a complaint -- unless a police officer covertly engages in a forbidden transaction.

So there's good reason to be leery of people like Ed Newcomer."

Doug
Jun 24, 2008

Well preliminarly i must say yes we humans are superior Amy.The bible tells us so.
But i sure think these men are wrong and should let nature take its course.

Mike
Jun 18, 2008

Yes, all life should be respected; but, there is a reason pigeons are often referred to as "flying rats", they are the bottom of the food chain for those raptors. Unfortunate those men can't receive a taste of their own medicine--it may be the only way they would ever understand their wrongdoing.

Chris
Jun 17, 2008

Go DeFazio (fourth to last paragraph)!
Thats my Rep!

Amy
Jun 12, 2008

Wow. These bird killing men make me sick. The laws need to be changed. Humans are not superior, we only think we are. The laws should be the same if a man kills/tortures an animal as it is for a human. Life is life and all creatures have feelings. Getting sprayed in the eyes with bleach or stomped to death is cruelty and torture to animals. These men should have been put in jail and their pigeons should have been taken away.

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