Mythology chronicles the majestic rebirth of the fabled phoenix bird, which rises from the ashes of a desert wilderness in a continuous cycle of immortality. Now biologists and land managers will attempt a rebirth for the famed California condor amid the rugged mesas and backcountry of northern Arizona, where the immense bird once soared, but where it faded into local extinction more than seven decades ago.
The Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced it will attempt an experimental release of up to six young California condors in the Vermilion Cliffs region in Arizona's Coconino County. The release is expected to occur in mid-December.
Exact timing of the transfer to Arizona of captive condors from breeding facilities at the Los Angeles Zoo and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, awaits concurrence by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and the Bureau of Land Management. The birds' later release from a site on the Paria Plateau will be influenced by factors such as weather, logistical constraints, and the behavorial development of the young condors.
The decision to undertake a release was made after an extensive series of meetings with local governments in southern Utah and northern Arizona, two public hearings in both states, and a public comment period of 3 months. Discussions with county and state government representatives in the region have produced an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, under which the recovery of the California condor will be promoted. Current uses, and those reasonably expected in the future, of lands, air, and water within the experimental population area are not expected to be affected by the project. Further, the Service has pledged to seek the cooperation of local governments and private landowners and to develop opportunities to provide economic benefits for local communities from the condor recovery program.
"Members of local governments, particularly in southern Utah, have raised some very important issues about the return of the California condor to this area. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service has had 5 years of experience in managing condor reintroductions in southern California, this effort represents something new and untried in Utah and Arizona, and people have asked some very legitimate questions about how this experimental release will be conducted," says Nancy Kaufman, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest region, which is headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"We feel privileged to have established this productive dialogue with the cities and counties within the area covered by the condor experimental population designation, and we are fully committed to involvement by the people of Arizona and Utah in the recovery of the condor in their area," says Kaufman. "We believe that a project that is respectful of the public land, sensitive to the needs of private landowners, and mindful of the views of the people and their representatives can be conducted, to the ultimate benefit of a species which we seek to reestablish in its former range."
Condors were last reported in Arizona in 1924. By returning condors to Arizona, biologists hope to give the new population a greater degree of security and isolation than they have had at release sites in California, where there have been six reintroductions since 1992, several as near as 75 miles from the heart of downtown Los Angeles. The Paria Plateau area in Arizona once supported California condors and provides the necessary remoteness, ridges and cliffs as launching points for soaring, and caves for future nesting.
Currently there are 121 California condors in the world -- 17 in the backcountry of Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties in California and 104 in captive-breeding facilities in Escondido, California; Los Angeles; and Boise. The captive-breeding colonies currently house 16 breeding pairs of condors, producing about 20 chicks each year.
The Peregrine Fund, which will assist the Fish and Wildlife Service by conducting field operations for the Arizona condor release, made history this year by hatching the first condor egg outside the state of California since the 1930's, at its World Center for Birds of Prey. The non-profit conservation organization, best known for its work in support of the recovery of the peregrine falcon and the Mauritius kestrel, was founded in 1970 and has propagated and released over 4,500 rare birds. Release techniques developed by The Peregrine Fund have been used for the condor, the harpy eagle, and the aplomado falcon.
The Arizona release will be undertaken under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act and its "nonessential experimental population" designation, by which the Service treats condors, an endangered species, as "threatened" on National Park Service and National Wildlife Refuge System lands in the project area, and elsewhere as a species proposed for listing. Regulations for the management of this experimental group of birds would be less restrictive than mandatory prohibitions covering endangered species -- a flexibility of the Endangered Species Act that helps ensure reintroductions of protected species are compatible with current and planned human and land use activities in the project area.
The site for the Arizona release is on the southwestern corner of the Paria Plateau less than 300 feet from the edge of the Vermilion Cliffs, which rise about 1,000 feet from the valley floor; while the release site will be visible to the public from Arizona Alternate Highway 89 and intersecting local roads, the Fish and Wildlife Service believes the presence of people and vehicles at a far distance from the site should have minimal effect on the birds and their dispersal. The Service does ask the public to respect the rights of private property owners and regulations on Bureau of Land Management land in any future attempts to gain vantage points in the area to see condors in flight.
An area of about 10 acres of Federal land around the release site will be temporarily closed to public uses to protect the newly-released condors, and will remain closed until the young birds have dispersed from the site. If this initial release proves successful, the Service will seek to continue limited releases of condors in the area until a self-sustaining wild population of 150 birds is established in the region, thereby contributing to the species' ultimate recovery and eventual removal from listing under the Endangered Species Act.
In addition to The Peregrine Fund, this release involves the cooperation of a number of other organizations, including local cities, counties and private individuals; the Bureau of Land Management, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park, Kaibab National Forest, the Hualapai Tribe, The Navajo Nation, and three zoological institutions -- the Phoenix and Los Angeles Zoos and the Zoological Society of San Diego.
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