Thursday, November 27, 2003
An upcoming release of condors at the Pinnacles National Monument will end more than a century''s absence of North America''s largest bird from the park on the border of Monterey and San Benito counties.
On Dec. 19, the Ventana Wilderness Society will team up with the National Park Service for the first release of four young California condors into the Pinnacles. The 25,000-acre open space will become the fifth release site in the world since the California Condor Reintroduction Program began releasing fledglings in 1992.
A total of seven condors have been held in a flight pen on an open ridgeline in the Pinnacles since early September, when 40 volunteers helped transfer the birds by hand up the hillside.
Although it''s been 100 years since they''ve been in the park, some local ranchers say they remember seeing the giant vulture in the hills just east of the Monument as late as the 1970s. While most eagerly welcome the condor''s return, those who depend on ranching for their livelihood are concerned about what could happen if the endangered species soars back onto their land.
The release itself has been a long time coming. Plans to release the birds last year at a different location within the Monument had to be scrapped after a neighboring landowner refused to grant biologists access through his property. Just last week, an early December release date had to be bumped back two weeks after complications arose with the condor-proofing of nearby power lines.
"We''ve had to overcome a lot of delays," says Pinnacles condor biologist Rebecca Leonard. "But amazingly enough, it''s finally going to happen."
Releasing the birds on public land will bring both opportunities and challenges for the organizations involved.
Kelly Sorenson, executive director of Ventana Wilderness Society, says he is "excited and grateful" that the project has finally come to fruition. Sorenson''s organization has been releasing condors in Big Sur since 1996.
In the Pinnacles, he said, "People are really going to get a chance to see condors.
"This is very exciting, but it''s a double-edged sword, because we want to avoid any close-up condor-human interactions."
For the first time, release-day events will be open to the general public. A viewing area will be set up for the visitors to the Monument about a mile away from the actual point of release.
Andy Abate, a condor technician for the Pinnacles, has been monitoring the birds'' behavior as they prepare for release. "They''re really ready to go." Abate says. "Every time the wind picks up they start soaring inside the pen. Even when they see ravens flying by outside they are getting excited. They are definitely ready to spread their wings."
Back in the 1800s, it was fairly common to see a condor soaring over the Pinnacles. Early sightings in the area were well documented, as a lot of the birds were "collected"--shot for museums. Condors taken from the area before the turn of the century can now be found as far away as the Hastings Nebraska Museum and the University of Arizona.
One Pinnacles old-timer, Stan Schmidt, 77, remembers hearing stories about how his grandfather and great uncles, "the Bacon boys," pulled a condor egg from a nest cave in the 1880s. They found the egg in the Big Rock Pile, the high jagged volcanic formations for which the Monument was later named. "I don''t know whatever happened to the egg," Schmidt says. "I was told my great uncle Ben donated it to a museum when he passed away. I never saw it myself, but, boy, as a young kid, I sure wanted to."
Biologist-confirmed reports tell of locals finding birds in the surrounding area relatively recently. One of the locals is Ed Strohn, owner of the 9,000-acre Call Mountain Ranch, some ten miles east of the Pinnacles.
When I first try to contact Strohn, I am told in no uncertain terms that he doesn''t talk to journalists. One week later a no-nonsense rancher with traces of chewing tobacco still stuck to his teeth steps out of a flatbed truck. He sits down across a picnic table from me in front of the Paicines General Store and cautiously tells what he knows about condors.
"I can remember as kids when we were deer hunting and a condor would fly over us," Strohn says. "We''d be lying real still and pretty soon there was this big old shadow. You''d look up and this huge bird wouldn''t be more than 10-15 feet above you. They were probably checking us out to see if we were still alive."
Strohn has a long history with the vultures on his ranch.
"They nested out in what we called the Big Pines," Strohn recalls. "Sometimes we''d go out there just to look at them. I''d be out riding and come up on them eating a dead animal or drinking by the dam."
As much as Strohn remembers the birds from his childhood, he doesn''t mourn their current absence.
"In a way, the condors were just part of the landscape," he says. "Nobody really made a big deal of them when they were here and nobody really missed them when they were gone. We knew their population was getting down. But, as far as we were concerned, and something I still believe, is that the condor is a dinosaur; its time has come and gone. It''s time to put our money somewhere else and move on."
When Strohn was 13, he and a friend came across a condor lying dead on the ground beneath the place he knows as the Big Pines. Three years later, in 1968, his dad gave the skeletal remains to a biologist studying the birds.
The biologist, after confirming the bird died of natural causes, requested authorization to send it to the Smithsonian Institution in DC. The bird remains at the museum to this day.
"I think that is pretty great, really," Strohn says when he finds out his bird ended up in the national museum. "I had no idea it made it all the way out there. My dad probably told me about it at some point, but, by then, I was in high school in Hollister. I was probably more interested in chasing something with two legs and no wings."
As familiar as Strohn is with the historic population of condors, he is still wary about the upcoming release.
"I remember biologists would come to the ranch back as early as the mid fifties to take pictures of the birds," Strohn says. "I was only 4 or 5 years old at the time. I remember helping carry their gear, or as much as they would have trusted me with at the time. We''d let anyone who wanted come on to the ranch back then and they were always very nice to us. But nowadays I feel like I could have trouble if biologists do come and find birds. If they start nesting back where they used to, are they going to close down 1000 acres of my ranch? That''s good cattle country."
On my way back from Paicines I stop at the Hollister Texaco station where I meet with George Hageman. Hageman, who now works at the station, was raised on the Quien Sabe Ranch east of town and remembers seeing condors there as a kid.
"They would come down into the pasture fields during the spring calving season and feed on the stillborns and afterbirth," Hageman says pointing across the sun-baked hills. "I can still remember them trying to get up in the air. Oh they were big birds! They were so big they would have to run to get into flight. I can still see them trying to get up. They would flap and flap their wings before finally taking off."
In hindsight, Hageman realizes just how fleeting the experience was.
"At that time as a kid I just thought they were a big bird," Hageman says. "But my dad told me, ''well, there aren''t that many left, someday they may go extinct.'' I wish I''d taken pictures, you just don''t think of those things."
When asked about the bird''s upcoming return, Hageman says, "I think it would be kind of nice to see them come back."
According to another man I met at the station, the condors have already returned. Fred Sharp, a retired rancher who lives just south of Hollister, believes he spotted a couple of condors from the Big Sur flock riding the thermals near his home a couple of years back. "I''ll probably be seeing a lot more of them pretty soon," Sharp says.