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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.

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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