Big Sur Blaze Smokes Out California Condors
By "The Tern" Jessica Leber--California’s recent and continuing wildfires have already devoured more than 600,000 acres, threatened some 10,000 residences, and forced evacuations of large swaths of some counties. But the burning has also ensnared one of the rarest birds in the world.
The fate of three California condor chicks within the Ventana Wilderness area in Big Sur is currently unknown. “We know one of the three nest sites burned,” says Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, the only private non-profit working to release the endangered birds into the wild. That chick, not yet able to fly, was nested about 200 feet up a redwood tree when the fire blazed through. The other two were located at the edge of the fire zone. Since the area is inaccessible and crews are still wrestling with fires, no one has been able to confirm whether they survived.
Three chicks might not seem like a huge deal, but it is when you consider that there are only 151 wild California condors, and 23 of them are in Big Sur. “Structures you can rebuild, but those chicks, if they’re lost, that is truly tragic. There’s really nothing we can do right now,” explains Sorenson.
Currently, rebuilding is what's on his mind. The group’s Condor Sanctuary, which had housed eight condors in two flight pens, burned down last week. The Coast Guard evacuated the birds and moved them to the Pinnacles National Monument just in time. The Ventana Wildlife Society had been preparing to release the captive-bred birds into the wild, a practice that has dramatically increased the species’ statewide population since it began in 1995. Now, they’ve set up a Condor Emergency Fund to raise money to rebuild their capacity to manage Big Sur’s condors as they have for the last 11 years. Once the flames subside, they’ll also be busy tracking down the whereabouts of the tagged free-flying population–most fled the fire area, but their current locations are uncertain.
These wildfires illustrate exactly why it’s so risky when we allow the population size of any species drop so low. Extinction threats don’t only consist of the constant pressures we facilitate– lead poisoning, power lines collisions, and shootings, in the case of the condors. When there are so few individuals, their survival is also subject to random chance. A bad wildfire season or disease outbreak could easily decimate a small population. Large populations, by contrast, are robust and can more easily bounce back if dealt a bad hand in a given year.
Then again, the wildfires may not be an entirely random disaster (even though most are caused by lightening strikes). Although forest fires are completely natural and even necessary in the West, humans have been adding fuel to ignite more flames of late. An Associated Press article reports that the length of the fire season is expanding and increasing in intensity. As more people move deeper into wild areas, careless deeds are adding frequent, dangerous sparks. And as climate change leads to hotter years and more frequent droughts, those slight sparks can more easily ignite all-consuming blazes, reports 60 Minutes. Incidentally, this year, California has had its driest spring in the last 114 years that records have been kept.
For now, most of Big Sur's California condors will hopefully ride out the current blazes (with the possible exception of the three chicks), and in the fall, the eight evacuated condors will join their wild brethren. To help the Ventana Wildlife Society continue to repopulate the Big Sur with condors, donate here.