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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Big Sur fire: Condors safe for now, but biologists watch nervously

By Paul Rogers Tribune News Service

As fires continue to burn across California’s Big Sur, flames and heavy smoke are threatening not just homes and businesses but some of the area’s most famous residents: Dozens of endangered California condors.

Biologists who have spent years painstakingly nurturing North America’s largest bird back from the brink of extinction say so far none of the 82 condors that live in the Big Sur area has been killed by the Soberanes Fire.

But the blaze – which began two weeks ago with an illegal campfire and on Friday reached 53,690 acres, an area nearly twice the size of the city of San Francisco – already has destroyed one of the six stations where researchers leave food for condors, a location south of Carmel that had fences and video cameras.

As the fire moves slowly south across coastal Monterey County, toward rugged, remote sections of the Los Padres National Forest, its leading edge Friday was about eight miles from three nests containing young condor chicks, as well as an important “condor sanctuary” site with pens, trailers and a cabin that scientists use to release condors that have been hatched in zoos.

“I am worried,” said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit group that is leading condor recovery efforts in Big Sur. “Just because we had a few chicks in wild nests survive wildfires in the past doesn’t mean it will happen again. It’s definitely a concern.”

Sorenson said biologists are hoping they won’t need to go in and rescue the young birds from the nests. The chicks are 3 to 4 months old, are being fed by their parents and won’t be able to fly on their own for another two or three months, he said.

“At this point it wouldn’t make sense to pull the chicks out of the nests because we’d have to figure out how to raise them,” Sorenson said. “We might do it as a last resort. We are going to be watching day by day.”

California condors, whose wingspans can reach 9 feet, once ranged from British Columbia to Mexico. But because of habitat loss, hunting and lead poisoning, the majestic birds’ population dwindled to just 22 birds nationwide by 1982. In a desperate gamble to stave off extinction, federal biologists captured all remaining wild condors in 1987 and began breeding them in zoos. The birds’ offspring have been gradually released back to the wild.

Today, the trends are positive.

As of Dec. 31, there were 435 California condors in the world, an increase of nearly 20-fold over the past 30 years. Of those, 268 live in the wild, and 167 live in captivity in places where they are bred and hatched, such as the San Diego Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Oregon Zoo and World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.

The wild condors live in Central California, where 82 birds split their time between Big Sur and Pinnacles National Park in San Benito County; in Southern California, mostly around Ventura and Santa Barbara counties; in the Grand Canyon and Utah; and in Baja, Mexico.

Last year, for the first time since the recovery effort began, more condors were born in the wild, 14, than died in the wild, 12. Scientists say that is an important milepost in their goal of removing the birds one day from the endangered species list, as other iconic species have such as the bald eagle, gray whale, American alligator and peregrine falcon.

Condors evolved with fire as a natural part of the landscape, said Steve Kirkland, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura.

“There have been birds lost in past fires, but most of the birds that are mobile will fly away,” said Kirkland, field coordinator for the California Condor Recovery Program. “If the fire came upon them suddenly with erratic winds, say early in the morning or late at night, that would be a riskier time. But this is a relatively slow moving fire. Hopefully they will get out of the area if they sense danger.”

Two adult condors disappeared in the 2008 Basin Complex Fire, a lightning-caused blaze that burned 162,818 acres in Big Sur. Their transmitters were never found, Sorenson said, leading researchers to believe they may have been overcome by smoke or flames. In that same blaze, fire burned around a redwood tree where a condor chick was living in a nest. The bird survived. Researchers nicknamed it Phoenix, and today it is still flying as an adult along the Big Sur coast.

Although the fire – which on Friday was 35 percent contained, having destroyed 57 homes – will scorch some condor habitat, Kirkland noted that the birds fly up to 100 miles a day and have plenty of other areas to look for food until the grass, brush and other animals return.

“They forage over such a wide area that it’s probably not a significant factor,” he said.

One challenge in tracking the condors, however, is that only about 20 percent of the Big Sur birds are fitted with GPS tags. Those tags are much more precise than radio transmitters, allowing scientists to track the speed, elevation and exact location minute-by-minute of the birds. But they cost $4,000 each, compared with only $200 for radio transmitters, and the Ventana Wildlife Society has been unable to afford them for all the birds.

Kirkland and Sorenson both said that despite the current fire risk, lead poisoning remains the main threat of condor deaths. Condors are scavengers and eat deer, wild pigs, ground squirrels and other animals that hunters or ranchers may have shot, ingesting lead fragments.

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law banning all lead ammunition in hunting in California starting in 2019. Sorenson’s group has handed out $100,000 in non-lead ammunition to ranchers and hunters around the Big Sur-Pinnacles area since then, and has seen a decline in lead poisoning deaths in recent years.

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