A wildfire burning through remote terrain in Big Sur has destroyed pens, a research building and other facilities used to release California condor for the past 23 years, a significant setback for the decades-long effort to restore the population of the endangered birds.


The Dolan Fire began last Wednesday in the Los Padres National Forest south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. By early Friday morning, it had wiped out the 80-acre condor sanctuary run by the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit group based in Monterey.

The site has been used since 1997 to release condors that have been raised in zoos and captive locations back into the wild. No condors or people were at the facility at the time of the fire, said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the organization.

But the fate of a 4-month old condor chick that was living in a nest in a redwood tree about one mile away remains unclear, he said. That bird, named Iniko, was being monitored by a remote camera. But the chick’s parents flew away as the fire advanced, and the camera was destroyed Thursday while Sorenson was watching at home with his family.

“We were horrified. It was hard to watch. We still don’t know if the chick survived, or how well the free-flying birds have done,” he said. “I’m concerned we may have lost some condors. Any loss is a setback. I’m trying to keep the faith and keep hopeful.”

Sorenson noted that there have been other fires in the past along the Central California coast that burned in condor territory. Of those, six burned near condor nests, and in five of the six cases, the chicks, which cannot fly until they are 6 months old, survived.

“The redwoods they nest in provide good protection,” he said.

Still, Sorenson said, at least four other condors are unaccounted for. There are 101 wild condors in Big Sur, the area around Pinnacles National Park in San Benito County and other parts of Central California.

Nearly all are fitted with radio transmitters, but only about 30% also have GPS devices, which cost $4,000 each. Because the fire is still burning, it will be a few days before biologists can fan out to try and locate the missing birds.

Sorenson’s organization has begun a campaign to raise $500,000 to rebuild the condor center. More information is available at www.ventanaws.org.

The Dolan Fire began Aug. 18. As of Tuesday night, it had burned 20,091 acres in remote national forest areas. It was 15% contained. Authorities say the cause appears to be arson. California State Parks rangers detained Ivan G. Gomez, 31, of Fresno, at the John Little State Natural Reserve, near where the fire began at Dolan Canyon, the next day. Gomez was arrested and booked into Monterey County Jail on $2 million bail on charges of arson, cultivating marijuana and battery.

Highway 1 is closed between Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Lucia.

The recovery of California condors has been one of America’s greatest wildlife success stories.

The vulture-like birds have the largest wingspan of any bird in North America — up to 9 feet.

They once ranged from British Columbia to Mexico. But because of habitat loss, hunting and lead poisoning from eating dead deer and other animals containing hunters’ bullet fragments, the majestic birds reached a low of just 22 nationwide by the early 1980s.

In a desperate gamble to stave off extinction, federal biologists captured all remaining wild condors in 1987 and began breeding them in the Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Zoo and other facilities. The birds’ offspring have been gradually released back to the wild.

Today the California condor population has grown to 518 animals. Of those, 337 live in the wild: 200 in California, 98 in Arizona, and 39 in Baja Mexico.

Hoping to cut down on lead poisoning of the birds, former California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that took effect last year banning lead bullets for hunting statewide. The Ventana Wildlife Society has spent thousands of dollars buying copper bullets in a program to encourage hunters to switch.

“We are making great progress,” Sorenson said. “In the last couple of years we’ve had tremendous momentum. The birds have been doing great. The fire is a setback, but condor recovery is going in the right direction. We need to rebuild to keep it going in the right direction.”

The article is originally published at the mercury news.