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Is This Bird Worth $20 Million?

That's How Much We've Spent to Save the Condor From Extinction Since a Recovery Plan Was Drawn Up in 1974. But Can a Pleistocene Vulture Thrive in a World of High-Tension Power Lines? Is a Bird That Even Its Defenders Agree Is Marginally Viable the Best Candidate for Such a Heroic Rescue Effort?

September 14, 1997|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | Michael J. Ybarra, who writes for The Times from San Francisco, is working on a book about Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran and the transformation of American politics from the New Deal to McCarthyism

Mark Vekasy steered the Ford pickup to the top of the rought road, parked on the crest and stepped onto the crimson-colored dirt of northern Arizona. Off to the east, the huge Navajo Indian Reservation that sprawls across three states poured into a wide red valley dotted with sagebrush. Mesas and buttes cut sharp silhouettes on the horizon. In the middle of this vastness, the tall chimneys of a tribal power plant fumed white smoke into the endless sky. Off to the west, the improbable blue of water filled the countless coves and canyons of Lake Powell.

The land and the sky stagger the imagination: The cracked and tilted earth brings forth hundreds of millions of years of geology at a glance and mocks the human life span. The sheer scale of the landscape is enormous. So is Vekasy's task.

The 34-year-old biologist's job is to shepherd the California condor back from the brink of extinction and into the wild once again. Last December, scientists embarked upon the final phase of an ambitious effort to get the condor off nature's death row by starting a flock of the birds amid the scarlet crags of Vermilion Cliffs, southwest of Lake Powell, a thousand feet above the desert floor where the Colorado River begins to carve the Grand Canyon and where the great bird soared during the last Ice Age. And now one of Vekasy's birds was missing.

Like some sort of ancient mystic trying to conjure rain from the heavens, Vekasy raised a rod to the sky. Holding the aluminum antenna above his head, he pressed a radio scanner against his chest and dialed in the frequency he had been searching for: Condor 51. Each condor released into the wild wears two radio transmitters: one mounted to a tail feather, another pierced underneath a wing. The day before another biologist had lost track of the bird.

Condor 51 (short for 151) was one of 135 of its kind in the world, the fruit of decades of hard work to keep the virtually extinct bird from sliding into oblivion. The 11-month-old condor, born at the Los Angeles Zoo, was one of the bolder birds in the nine-bird flock, a strong flier who could dominate a carcass and had pushed the boundaries of the flock's range east of Lake Powell, some 30 miles from the release site at Vermilion Cliffs.

Vekasy got a strong beep. He started to walk. The beeping grew louder as he approached an electrical tower draping high-tension power lines across the desert. Under the line was an abandoned refrigerator. A terrible thought seized Vekasy: someone shot Condor 51 and stuffed the body of the largest bird in North America into the discarded icebox like so much leftover chicken. Then he found the tail feather, a ratty, foot-long black quill with a thumb-sized transmitter still attached. Birds lose feathers all the time.

Switching to the wing transmitter, Vekasy followed the signal for more than a mile to a rocky outcrop. There he found the body by a clump of rabbit brush. A sad path of prints from the creature's 9-foot wings trailed back to the rock where the bird had struggled before dying; both legs were broken, a stripe across the femurs showing where the bird had clipped the power line before flying the final mile of its short life.

Vekasy picked up the 20-pound body and carried it back to his truck. He drove to the town of Page and at Wal-Mart purchased a large cooler, a garbage bag and ice to ship the bird to San Diego for a necropsy the next day. Then he headed south, slipping through a cleft in the red rock of Echo Cliffs, descending onto a flat plain of scrub land, dipping into a small fissure in the desert to cross the Colorado River and wind up at a lonely motel deep in the late-afternoon shadows of Vermilion Cliffs, where Condor 51 had soared into the wild six months earlier.

*

It has been a decade since the last free-flying California condor was snatched from a dry hill in Kern County and hauled to the San Diego Wild Animal Park in a desperate and highly controversial bid to save the species from extinction. The Condor Recovery Program is one of the most expensive, contentious and heart-wrenching efforts that man has ever undertaken to make amends to nature. By raw numbers, the effort has been a success: In captivity, scientists have quadrupled the birthrate of the slow-breeding vulture and increased by fivefold its population, at 134 since the death of Condor 151. In 1992, the program began returning the birds to the wild, where 28 of them live in two flocks in California and Arizona. Establishing the birds at Vermilion Cliffs near the Grand Canyon is the latest step on what scientists hope will be a relatively short road to declaring victory in the long fight to save the condor.

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