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2nd Sanctuary Condor Killed : Endangered: It hits power lines. The death prompts officials to plan to move the birds outside the county.

June 02, 1993|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the second time in the past nine months, an endangered California condor from the Sespe Condor Sanctuary has been accidentally killed by a man-made hazard, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported Tuesday.

The deaths of the giant birds--a year-old female was electrocuted Friday by high-voltage power lines and a 15-month-old male died last October after drinking antifreeze--have prompted wildlife officials to plan a relocation of six remaining condors out of Ventura County.

To minimize the birds' contact with civilization (last March, two men were arrested for allegedly trying to shoot a third condor), wildlife officials will gradually phase them out of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and place them about 30 miles to the northwest in the even more remote San Rafael Wilderness of Santa Barbara County.

"We want to move them as far away as possible," Fish & Wildlife biologist Jennifer Gibson said. "The Sespe is only a hop, skip and jump to Magic Mountain. The closer the condors get to L.A., the worse it gets."

The condors won't be physically removed but will be "manipulated" into vacating the Sespe, Gibson said.

"We'll control their behavior by moving their feeding sites west" toward San Rafael's Lion's Canyon, where the next brood of condor chicks will be released in December, she said.

A member of the Ventura County Environmental Coalition, who was surprised to hear about the condors flying the coop to Santa Barbara County, doubts the move will keep the birds from harm's way.

"You really can't tell a condor where to fly," said Cynthia Leake, vice president of the coalition. "How are you going to keep them from flying to Ventura or Kern counties and away from other hazards?"

Releasing condors into the wild is part of a $15-million program to bring the species back from the edge of extinction. Only 76 California condors now exist, all but six in zoos.

But in the next year, Gibson said, Fish & Wildlife officials intend to release condors in Santa Barbara County, the Grand Canyon and southeast New Mexico. By 1997, experts expect 30 to 40 condors to be living in the wild. Some won't survive, Gibson said.

"We expect deaths to occur," she said. "We expect these things to happen."

Still, Gibson said she was depressed by the condor's death Friday. When the accident occurred, Gibson was tracking the condors, which have radio transmitters attached to their wings. All seven condors were flying together, looking for food or just frolicking, Gibson speculated.

After about six hours aloft, the condors flew over Fillmore, riding the wind on their nine-foot wingspans. Facing another 40-minute flight back to their roost in the Sespe, they decided to "take a break because they were pooped," Gibson said.

Six of them had no trouble alighting on an 8-foot horizontal beam atop a power pole, but eyewitnesses said one bird--a female named Niko--simultaneously touched a wing and its body against separate lines, completing a circuit that jolted the bird with 17,000 volts. The accident disrupted power to parts of Fillmore for 30 minutes.

"A condor's wingspan is so big it's easy to touch two lines," Gibson said.

To prevent just such an accident, a consortium of energy companies spent $400,000 the past two years to bury 1.6 miles of power lines in areas around the Sespe sanctuary.

Niko, who was released into the Sespe last December with five other condors, was described by Gibson as "a beautiful flyer, aggressive and always one of the first to explore new areas."

The 19-pound condor was taken to the San Diego Zoo, where an examination discovered no additional signs of injury or disease but did turn up an interesting twist: Niko was female, not male as had been believed. Of the six remaining condors, only two are male.

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