Flight of the Condor (and Ferret)

Reintroduction of ancient vulture and black-footed weasel edifies captive-breeding efforts. ENDANGERED SPECIES

WITHIN the next few weeks, the California condor will be reintroduced to chaparral-covered hills north of here and 50 black-footed ferrets to the wilds of Wyoming in a dramatic test of man's ability to play Noah's Ark.Four years after the last of the two nearly extinct animals were brought into captivity to breed, they are starting to be restored to the wild in two of the most audacious and costly bids to save vanishing species. If the recovery programs are successful, they will mute some of the criticism of captive breeding programs and will give supporters of the Endangered Species Act powerful testimonials as they seek reauthorization of the controversial law in Congress next year. "The projects are proof that the effort, money, and attention put into recovery is beginning to pay off for certain species," says David Klinger of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Captive breeding at zoos and other wildlife centers has become an increasingly familiar tool to try to save animals on the cusp of extinction. Federal and state officials, as well as private conservation groups, have helped replenish populations of bald eagles, whooping cranes, peregrine falcons, and other species. The condor and black-footed ferret were among the few so close to oblivion that federal wildlife managers felt it necessary to round up all remaining species, for which they were severely criticized. The red wolf, now being returned to native grounds in North Carolina, is another. With its 10-foot wingspan and link to prehistory, the condor ennobles almost mystic reverence. The bird dates back nearly a million years, to the early Pleistocene era, a time of saber-toothed tigers, giant sloths, and mastodons. Like most vultures, it is ugly on the ground. In flight, with wind wooshing through its wings like a bellows, it inspires awe. "It is hard to be indifferent about condors," says Lloyd Kiff, an ornithologist who leads the California Condor Recovery Team. "They seem like a creature out of another geologic history." At one time, thousands of condors glided over the West and as far east as Florida and New York. For all their ability to adapt over the eons, however, they were not able to cope with one late-arriving intruder, man. Shot by hunters and poisoned by lead bullets in carcuses they fed on, the big birds declined in number, until, in 1983, there were only 22 left. Federal officials brought all the remaining birds into captivity in 1987. The National Audubon Society and other environmental groups opposed the move, arguing they would become zoo specimens. Since then, the condor population has grown from 27 to 52 through breeding at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park, enough that biologists believe it is time to start releasing them. Early next month, two California condor chicks will be helicoptered from the Los Angeles Zoo to a cliff in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, a remote part of Ventura County north of here. In an attempt to replicate the natural fledgling process, the four-month-old birds will be placed in a cave-like pen until they are about six-months-old, the time they would normally leave the nest and fly. Because reintroductions work best in groups, scientists will release two Andean condor chicks along with the birds. Several other Andeans, close kin of the California bird, have already been released in the area. Scientists will watch the birds in their man-made roost through a one-way mirror and videocameras. Even after they take wing, however, man's involvement in a recovery process that has cost $10 million so far won't cease. Radio tags will be used to track the birds in flight. To ensure a source of contaminate-free food, calf carcuses will be placed on elevated feeding platforms now being built in the Sespe's bear-infested hills. The ultimate goal is to establish three populations of condors, two in the wild (one here and another later on at the Grand Canyon) and one in zoos. Scientists hope to build the outdoor flocks up to 100 birds each, which could take 20 years. The success of the breeding at zoos and decision to start releasing birds has silenced many early critics of the program. Yet some environmentalists still believe not enough is being done to protect condor habitat. The Sierra Club and others are pushing legislation in Congress that would set aside about 400,000 acres of wilderness area along the central California coast. To protect the birds now, wildlife officials are urging hunters not to sight in on condors when they are released. They also want them to bury the remains of deer they shoot so the vultures won't ingest lead fragments. Even with all the preparations and precautions, however, restoring a stable condor population in the wild will be difficult. "It is going to take extensive management for many, many years," says Robert Mesta, program coordinator at the Ventura site. Equally delicate will be reestablishing ferrets in their native ground. Earlier this month, biologists began releasing the Zoro-masked black-footed weasel in a basin north of Medicine Bow, Wyo. The area is dimpled with colonies of prairie dogs, the ferret's principal prey. Fifty will be freed by the end of October. Five years ago the ferret was the nation's most endangered mammal, the result of dwindling populations of prairie dogs over the decades and, more recently, disease. After several failed attempts to breed them in captivity, biologists tried again in the late 1980s. Through pluck and a bit of serendipity, they have built the population up to 322. Under the best of circumstances, ferrets suffer a high mortality rate in the wild. But scientists are encouraged by their first few weeks of adaptability. "My gut reaction" is that these little beasts "are going to make it," says Larry Kruckenberg of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

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