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Condor Conundrum : Plan to Reintroduce Endangered California Bird to Grand Canyon Area Angers Residents of Region, but a Compromise Is Reached

April 28, 1996|MARY F. POLS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — Never in a million years did Robert Mesta expect the good people of Grand Canyon country to greet his beloved California condors with such contempt.

But there it is, on top of a stack of like-minded public comments sitting in his Ventura office, the honest opinion of Orderville, Utah, residents Janice and Larry Esplin.

"The condor is not a majestic bird but a common buzzard which lives on road kill," the Esplins wrote. "If you think that we or any tourist would be excited to see these birds gnawing away on a dead animal carcass along the road you are very mistaken."

So much for the welcome wagon.

Not only had the Esplins voiced their opposition to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan to reintroduce the endangered birds to the Grand Canyon region, so had just about every elected official in southeast Utah and northern Arizona, from the mayor of Panquitch, Utah (pop. 1,444), to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

"The California condor was just beat up," Mesta said ruefully. "They said, why don't you just keep them in California?"

As the mastermind behind the Grand Canyon plan--formally known as the Experimental Release of California Condors at Vermilion Cliffs--Mesta found himself in unfamiliar territory. The perspective from his office, the headquarters of Fish and Wildlife's decade-long effort to save the condors from extinction, is quite different.

Here the bird gets reverential treatment. Audubon drawings of the condor vie with glossy telephoto images for wall space. A visitor is handed an enormous feather to admire. A new egg hatching is cause for celebration.

And the goodwill extends beyond the Ventura office. Southern Californians have rejoiced in every successful condor release in the Los Padres Forest and mourned every time a zoo-bred bird has died from eating antifreeze or landing on an electric pole.

This is unabashedly condor country.

But what the Esplins and others were telling Mesta was that Utah and Arizona are not condor country. Sure, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say the condor lived there before the Ice Age and returned briefly in the 18th century. Sure, some bird-watcher reported seeing a condor swooping in for a carcass dinner near Williams, Ariz., in 1924. But who believes any of that? Certainly not Janice Esplin.

"I wouldn't believe anything they say," she said. "I just don't want any more of their monkey business."

Apparently, many people in southern Utah and northern Arizona, like Esplin, are fed up with the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The California condor is just the latest in a string of threatened creatures whose need for environmental protection has caused a deep bitterness and mistrust of the government among residents.

"Only in America would this happen," said Joe Judd, a commissioner in Utah's Kane County, just miles from Vermilion Cliffs in Coconino County, Ariz., where the release is planned. "All the people that do not live here want to enact laws to control how we live."

The list of sins that residents recount about endangered species is long. The desert tortoise is blamed for destroying millions of dollars in development opportunities in the city of St. George in Utah's Washington County. The prairie dog, victim of too many deft poisoners over the years, is now one of the most pampered and least welcome residents of Panquitch, Utah. Along the Utah-Arizona border, many residents believe that the Mexican spotted owl is responsible for shutting down a lumber mill in Fredonia, Ariz., last spring, costing 400 people there and in outlying areas their jobs.

The mill closing hit Janice Esplin hard. Her niece's husband was out of a job, as were many of her friends in Orderville.

"It was really terrible," Esplin said. "And it was all because of the lies that were told about the spotted owl."

Into this atmosphere, Mesta first set foot last fall.

"What we walked into was a tradition," he said. "A tradition of anti-endangered-species feelings. These folks had been stewing, with no outlet, for years."

Outraged residents turned to local politicians who were familiar with the desert tortoise, the spotted owl and the prairie dog. And they found plenty of sympathy, in particular from Republicans Hatch and U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett.

"There was already a feeling of very great and intense distrust of and almost anger at the Endangered Species Act in Washington County," said Hatch aide Robert Dibblee. "It's obvious that the Kane County people were seeing what was happening to their neighbor county and didn't want to go through the same hell."

At the request of Hatch and Bennett, the agency extended its public comment period twice. By the time it finally ended April 1, Mesta had 206 written comments to answer. A little more than half were favorable, such as that of Tom Morrison of Salt Lake City, who called the Utah senators closed-minded.

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