After months of disagreement about how to proceed with faltering efforts to save the California condor, state and federal officials have settled on a compromise plan to capture four of the seven remaining wild birds.
Under the plan, the captured birds would be added to 20 others already at the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos. The plan also calls for the release next spring of two or three young condors that have been produced by the breeding program.
Should more deaths occur among the free-roaming population, however, state officials said they would recommend the immediate capture of all remaining wild birds.
The intensity of the debate had been heightened by the loss of six wild condors--nearly half the free-roaming population--since last November.
The state commission recommended earlier this year that all seven of the remaining condors be captured.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued, however, that some of the remaining birds should be left in the wild, according to Michael Scott, director of the Condor Research Center in Ventura, which is jointly managed by the service and the National Audubon Society.
“There is no Holy Grail on this,” he said. There are advantages to capturing more birds and advantages to leaving some in the wild. New captive birds will increase the genetic diversity and quantity of condors produced by the breeding program, he said. “Right now, raising as many birds as possible is our main objective.”
The compromise was announced Friday at a meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission in San Rafael.
Several scientists said resolution of the longstanding dispute over how to protect the remaining condors may speed acquisition of the Hudson Ranch, a 13,820-acre parcel of range land in the San Joaquin Valley, which they consider crucial to the condor’s welfare.
Officials in the Interior Department recently have expressed concern about spending as much as $9 million for land that could have been devoid of birds if the original state plan had been adopted.
A team was dispatched Tuesday to try to capture one bird in Kern County, and federal permits are pending for three more, Scott said. The biologists are using two techniques to trap the birds: In one, a net is flung over a feeding condor with small cannons; the other involves placing a person in a hole near a planted carcass. When a condor settles to feed, it is to be grabbed by the legs.
The three condors that are to remain free may help any birds that are subsequently released to adjust to the natural environment. Several birds reared in captivity may be released next April if there are no new deaths, Scott said.
Ronald Jurek, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, said the birds remaining in the wild will also serve as a “rallying point,” helping to preserve the habitat, much of which has been targeted for development.
“The challenge with endangered species is to think ahead,” said Michael Scott. “If we don’t protect the habitat now for a population of at least 200 birds, then our chance of protecting it some time in the future is much less.”
Several officials associated with the program said that hesitation on the part of the Interior Department to purchase the Hudson Ranch was triggered in part by a growing belief in the department that the condor is a lost cause.
‘Why Buy the Land?’
John Ogden, a former director of the Condor Research Center and now director of ornithological research for the National Audubon Society, said, “The debate over whether to acquire Hudson Ranch seemed to be moving along well until certain people thought there was a possibility that there would no longer be condors out there.”
According to Phil Million, director of public affairs for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Interior Department had been waiting to see whether the California commission still believed that all the condors should be captured. “There are management-type people in the department who asked, ‘If there are no condors left, why buy the land?’ ” he said.
Negotiations are continuing over the purchase of the property. Richard Hadley, a Seattle-based developer, recently rejected a government offer of $5.3 million for the ranch.
Hadley said he is willing to have the acquisition price settled by the courts. Under such a procedure the government would seize the property, using its powers of condemnation.
According to Thomas Wilson, a spokesman for the Interior Department, the decision will be handled by assistant Secretary William Horn, who handles fish and wildlife and park service matters, “particularly tough decisions,” Wilson said. “And this will undoubtedly be a tough one.”