A recent plunge in the already tiny population of California condors has presented the Department of the Interior with a dilemma: Should it spend millions of dollars to create a refuge for a species that some say is already doomed?
That dilemma has split the department, as one official put it, "between the biologists and the bankers," and has put on hold efforts to purchase the Hudson Ranch, a huge tract in Kern County that is the main feeding ground--and some biologists say the last hope--for the broad-winged scavengers.
'On the Side of the Angels'
"Everybody wants to be on the side of the angels on this kind of thing," said Joseph Gorrell, a deputy assistant secretary of Interior. "On the other hand, nobody wants to spend their money foolishly."
A 13,820-acre expanse of sun-parched, rolling grassland and canyons in the San Joaquin Valley, the Hudson Ranch has been regarded for several years as the primary site to nurture the recovery of the species. In the last year, according to one wildlife survey, all of the remaining condors in the wild have used the ranch as foraging ground.
But early this year, government biologists reported that the project to save the condor from extinction had undergone an unexpected reversal when six of the 13 condors known to exist in the wild were lost. As a protective measure, researchers recently announced a plan to capture three of the remaining birds and place them in Southern California zoos where they will become part of an ongoing captive-breeding program.
Congress has set aside $9 million for the purchase, but budget officials within the Reagan Administration, citing the recent loss of the six birds, recently questioned the need for the acquisition. "There are management-type people who asked, 'If there are no condors left, why buy the land?' " said Phil Million, director of public affairs for the Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Interior Department.
"There are valid reasons to raise questions about that," said Gorrell, who is in Interior's policy, budget and administration office. "Working with endangered species carries a high risk of failure. That's why the bankers--the people who sign off on large bucks for uncertain activities--hesitate."
He gave an example of such a question: "In the 11-million-acre range of the condor, you find that there are already 2 million acres of federal land. What is so very unique about this Hudson Ranch? What makes it such a nifty place?"
Government biologists and environmental groups concede that substantial federal lands do exist in the bird's range, including the 53,000-acre Sespe Condor Sanctuary near Ojai. However, they maintain that the Hudson Ranch is uniquely suited to provide a haven for the few remaining condors. In addition, they say the site would serve as a release point for condors that have been raised in the breeding programs.
All of the land currently set aside for the condors is either mountainous or wooded, making it suitable for nesting and roosting, according to Michael Scott, director of the Condor Research Center in Ventura, a joint venture of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society.
On the other hand, Hudson Ranch is mostly open country and serves as a primary foraging area for the wide-ranging scavengers, Scott said.
The ranch's isolation also makes it an ideal release spot for birds raised in the captive breeding programs, according to Jesse Grantham, senior Audubon biologist at the center. "The property is bounded on three sides by Forest Service land and Bureau of Land Management land," he said.
Twenty-one condors are currently in captive breeding programs at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos. The latest addition, a female, was caught two weeks ago on the Hudson Ranch, according to a spokesman for the Condor Research Center. Six condors remain in the wild, but under the plan announced recently by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Fish and Game Commission, three of those will be captured and three left to roam free.
The landowner, Richard Hadley, a Seattle-based developer, said he bought the ranch in 1980 with the intention of building "a cluster of homes with a shared working farm." Hadley said he rejected Interior's first offer of $5.3 million for the property because it "represented only 70% of what we paid for the land." According to Interior officials, Hadley paid $6.7 million for the ranch.
Thousands of Acres Untouched
Last week, Hadley submitted a new proposal to Interior in which the government would gain control over much of the land in return for permitting him to build houses on the remainder. A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday that Interior is going to "re-examine the entire acquisition in light of the new offer."