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SPECIAL REPORT / Bouncing back from near-extinction, these giant birds may be about to reproduce in the wild. But experts see . . . Condors Flying High, but Not Out of Danger


VENTURA — Sixteen years after nearly becoming extinct, California condors are making a surprisingly strong comeback, expanding their numbers and their range far beyond the Ventura County back country where the ambitious experiment to rescue them began.

Scientists credit new chick rearing and release strategies for enabling the birds to wing their way back from the brink of annihilation.

In the past decade, the California condor population has increased fivefold, to 150 birds. A record 20 chicks were hatched this year at captive breeding sites at the Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Boise, Idaho-based World Center for Birds of Prey.

"We're at a pivotal point as far as the condor recovery program is concerned," said Robert Mesta, a federal biologist who coordinates the program at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters for condor recovery in Ventura. "They're moving back into their historical range, finding food on their own and exhibiting some breeding behavior."

Even the strongest doubters, who several years ago feared that recovery was too late and the species doomed, are amazed at the turnaround. Scientists are increasingly optimistic that the giant carrion-feeders with the 10-foot wingspans have a chance to reclaim the skies over California and to become established in other Western states.

"I was pretty pessimistic about saving condors in California because there's too many human activities going on there," said Lloyd F. Kiff, science director for the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit group that breeds condors in Idaho. "It's been a fairly incredible recovery. It's far better than I thought it could be."

Of course, with only 150 left on the planet, the California condor population is still not robust enough to shed endangered species status. Condors remain one of the world's rarest and most imperiled birds. Wild populations are still small enough to be vulnerable to disease, poaching and predators, according to scientists.

Although just 35 California condors live in the wild today, the oldest are beginning to show courtship behavior, leading scientists to hope that they will soon reproduce in the wild, the critical step on the road to recovery.

Condors are relics, one of the last giant animals from the days when woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers roamed America the continent. Condor fossils have been found from New York to Texas, the La Brea tar pits to Florida. Though they resemble giant buzzards, scientists say they are related to storks.

Hundreds of the great birds once traversed mountain ranges from Lake Casitas to Lake Tahoe, feeding on piles of deer guts and dead livestock, but they disappeared from the skies in 1987 when six remaining wild birds were captured and sent to the Los Angeles Zoo for breeding.

An initial attempt to reintroduce the species to the wild five years later at the Sespe Condor Sanctuary near Fillmore failed when five birds crashed into power lines and died. The survivors were returned to the zoo to replenish their numbers.

Serious concern remains over whether Southern California, historically a condor stronghold, is the best place to reestablish the bird. Although numbers of wild birds are expanding, long-term prospects are questionable as civilization encroaches deeper into wild lands and brings with it pollution and other manmade hazards. Consequently, federal biologists are planting new condor colonies farther from Southern California.

"We're doing an atrocious job of protecting large tracts of viable habitats in California. How does that bode in the long haul for the condor? Not very well," said Kimball L. Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

And the cost of the program, $25 million and counting, has made the condor a target for critics of the Endangered Species Act. It costs about $2,000 annually to feed each of the adult birds, Kiff said, which strains the government's ability to sustain the recovery. Private groups--including the Peregrine Fund and the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary, which manages Big Sur condors--are increasingly being asked to carry more of the load.

Nonetheless, after years of fits and starts, the future is looking brighter for the condor. Scientists say El Nino's moist weather may have enabled the birds to mate two months longer than normal, producing the record brood of 20 chicks.

The birds also have finally gained a foothold in their native habitat. Sixteen soar on thermal gusts over remote canyons of the Los Padres National Forest. Five cruise the hills above Big Sur. Fourteen were set free northeast of the Grand Canyon last year. The rest remain in captivity, some as a brood stock, some awaiting release.

In the next three months, 22 juvenile condors will be released--the most ever in a season--with the first group of nine scheduled to be turned loose Nov. 18 at Hurricane Cliffs near Page, Ariz. The rest will be set free in California in January, Mesta said.

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