Condors ready for takeoff

  • This condor wears radios, markers and antennae

    D. Clendenen

California condors, giant vultures that can fly over 100 miles in a day, met with limited success when they were released by federal biologists in California three years ago. The endangered birds seemed inexorably drawn to human activities: Four birds died in collisions with power lines, another from drinking anti-freeze. Now, biologists hope the Vermillion Cliffs of Coconino County in northern Arizona will prove more hospitable to the reared-in-captivity birds. In a draft environmental study, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to release six to eight condors at the remote, 1,000-foot-high sandstone cliffs. It is a first step in the agency's plan to establish two separate wild condor populations of at least 150 birds each. Strong updrafts at the cliffs will give the birds room to stretch their wings (condors can achieve a nine-foot wingspan), says Robert Mesta, federal condor coordinator. Still, the condors will be released as an "experimental, non-essential population" under the Endangered Species Act, which means people who accidentally kill birds will not be prosecuted.

"In this day and age, I don't think you could release an extinct species anywhere without an (experimental, non-essential designation)," says Mesta. "Politically, it's the only way to go." With little public opposition expressed, he says the first group should be ready to take off early next year.

Meanwhile, recent releases in California met with more success after biologists used aversion training on captive condors, rushing them with nets and building mock power lines that shocked the birds.

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

" Warren Cornwall

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