August 31, 2008
Burned By Fire, Condor Sanctuary Prepares to Rebuild
By Paul Rogers Mercury News
Biologists working to bring the California condor back from the brink of extinction plan to break ground next month to rebuild Big Sur facilities critical to the birds' recovery that were destroyed by wildfires in June."I'm very optimistic. We managed to get by with only losing two birds. And we have had a great response from our donors. We are very focused,'' said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, a non profit group that has released condors in Big Sur since 1997.
The group and its majestic birds -- the largest in North America - - suffered a major setback June 21. That afternoon, lightning sparked the Basin Complex fire, which burned 163,000 acres across the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County over the following week.
In addition to homes, the blaze wrecked the wildlife society's "condor sanctuary,'' a remote outpost where condors were regularly treated for medical problems, fitted with radio transmitters and released.
The flames melted two huge pens where condors that hatched in captive breeding areas were acclimated to their surroundings before being released into the wild. The fire melted water tanks, a solar power system, radio transmitters and medical equipment.
Sorenson said following a plea for emergency donations, the public and his members have contributed roughly $100,000. He still needs an additional $30,000 to $50,000, he said, to properly equip and staff a new facility.
When the fire started, there were eight condors held in the net pens. In a rescue that made international news, a Coast Guard helicopter flew three of Sorenson's staff members to the location.
With darkness nearing and 100-foot flames advancing, Joe Burnett, Mike Tyner and Henry Bonifas ran 21/2 miles from the landing spot to the condor pens and put each of the birds in dog kennels.
The birds were taken to Pinnacles National Monument, 28 miles south of Hollister, where they remain in outdoor pens.
They will be released starting Nov. 1 into Pinnacles, where 16 other condors fly free. The birds are eating well and haven't lost weight, said Daniel George, condor program manager at Pinnacles.
"They're all doing great. They all are still in good health,'' George said.
"I don't think there will be any long-term impact,'' he added. "It was a stressful couple of days for them, but they settled into our site pretty well and started to exhibit normal behavior pretty soon."
Two weren't so lucky.
At the time of the fire, there were 43 condors flying wild in Big Sur and Pinnacles, Sorenson said. All had radio transmitters. While most condors apparently flew clear of the fire, radio signals went silent on two of the birds, a 3-year-old female and a 6-year-old male.
"They were last detected before the fire,'' he said. "We think the fire or the smoke overtook them. The bodies were never recovered, but it's been long enough now that we presume they are dead.''
Condors once ranged from British Columbia to Mexico. Because of habitat loss, hunting and lead poisoning from eating dead animals containing bullet fragments, they began declining around the Gold Rush and reached a low of 22 birds nationwide in the early 1980s. In a desperate gamble, federal biologists captured all remaining wild condors in 1987 and began breeding them in zoos.
Today the population has grown to 332. Of those, 156 live in the wild at Big Sur, Pinnacles, Ventura County, the Grand Canyon and Baja California.
Meanwhile, there is good news: Of three wild condor chicks born this spring in Big Sur, biologists have found two of them alive in their nests atop tall trees near where the fires burned. A third remains unaccounted for, although its parents continue to return regularly to the nesting spot -- a promising sign -- and Sorenson's group plans to go soon to learn its fate when it would be old enough to stand on branches and be seen.
"It's encouraging to me how well the birds survived during the fire,'' Sorenson said. "Not only can they deal with fire when it is occurring, but it gives us some foreshadowing that the condors can survive on their own when we are ready.''
To learn more or donate to the condor recovery, visit www.ventanaws.org.
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