Fear of flying: Local resistance keeps condors behind bars

  • Experimental population area of condors

    Diane Sylvain
  • Federal biologists hope condors will thrive in the wild

    Mike Wallace

A big bird gliding over a mostly empty Western landscape shouldn't be a big deal, but if the bird is an endangered condor and the land is publicly owned, it can be just that.

California condors will not be restored to northern Arizona's rugged and remote Vermilion Cliffs on schedule because of local opposition. Although release of the 25-pound vultures proved popular at public hearings in northern Arizona, over in Kanab, Utah, many residents remain hostile.

During public hearings in January in Kanab, locals told the panel of wildlife managers that they had already been the hapless recipients of federally imposed programs, including atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site. Residents also said that Mexican spotted owls were responsible for closing a nearby lumber mill.

"We were really surprised by the reaction we got in Kanab," says Robert Mesta, the condor-program manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They were so afraid that promises made now would be broken later."

To Jim Madsen, vice president of the Kanab-based Coalition for Resources and Economy, the issue isn't condors, it is the Endangered Species Act.

Utah's San Juan County agreed, filing suit in U.S. District Court to prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from acting until "impacts on local and private interests' were determined. Next, the U.S. Air Tour Association weighed in, recommending that condors stay put until industry concerns about flight restrictions and possible bird-plane collisions over Grand Canyon were addressed. There are now more than 100,000 flights for tourists over Grand Canyon each year.

But an Interior Department solicitor's opinion concluded that San Juan County's suit lacked merit. In addition, a Federal Aviation Administration database search revealed not one bird-plane collision in Grand Canyon National Park since record-keeping began in 1974. Still, condors originally scheduled for an Arizona release in April, and then July, may now wait until winter, and that's if all the parties agree. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already designated the release program as "non-essential, experimental" to assuage local fears about federal restrictions.

In 1982, the world's condors totaled 21. Today there are 121: 17 have been reintroduced in California, and 104 are in captivity. And while the parties debate, condors awaiting freedom pile up in the Los Angeles Zoo.

Recently, the Condor Recovery Team, an independent group of condor experts selected by the government, met in emergency session to decide the fate of the nine birds originally scheduled for release in Arizona.

The problem: The condors have grown old waiting. The new plan is to free them in California, where experienced birds can show them the ropes, since biologists agree it's hard to teach an old bird new tricks. If and when release of the birds gets back on track near Grand Canyon in Arizona, six newly hatched birds will be flown to the Vermilion Cliffs during their nestling period. They would fledge in mid-December.

Biologists expect the condors to spread throughout the canyons of the Colorado River - northwest into the reaches of Lake Powell, south into the Grand Canyon and southwest into Lake Mead. They will not be considered mature, nor begin mating, for another seven to eight years.

Biologists from the Peregrine Fund, under contract to the government but using private funds, will teach the young condors to forage by placing carcasses - probably one calf per week - progressively farther from the nest while ensuring the birds find them. The birds, whose wingspan is 9 feet 6 inches, eat only carrion.

For more information, contact Robert Mesta, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ecological Services, Ventura Field Office, 2493 Portola Road, Suite B, Ventura, CA 93003 (805/644-1766).

The writer lives and works at Grand Canyon National Park.