Final Flight

The instant Garry George spoke I could tell something was terribly wrong. The conservation chair of the Los Angeles chapter of the Audubon Society, George had enthusiastically recruited a squad the last week in July to track the flight of condor AC2, the last of the Santa Barbara line of wild condors, in the Bittercreek Wildlife Refuge north of Ojai. With Jesse Grantham of U.S. Fish and Wildlife as our guide, we drove hundreds of miles searching for his signal, finally sighting him over the yellow hills near Maricopa. George had jumped up and down, ecstatic; I noticed at the time there were tears in his eyes. This time, when I picked up the phone, I could sense there were tears again: George was calling to tell me that AC2 had been found dead. AC2, born sometime in the early 1960s, had been taken from the wild in 1986, shortly after the death of his mate, AC3, from lead poisoning. He was part of a final roundup of nine wild condors taken into captivity in the late ’80s. In June, he joined the 118 condors repatriated to their natural habitats in California, Arizona and Baja California. But AC2 was no ordinary condor: Like AC9, who still lives near the Hopper Mountain Condor Refuge in the Los Padres National Forest, AC2 was among the last of the wild-born condors. With his death their numbers dwindle to six, five of which live in captivity.No one knows yet what killed AC2. When his body was found in the Bittercreek Refuge on Tuesday, it had already been partially consumed by another animal. “It could have been attacked by a golden eagle,” postulates Mark Hall, manager of the Hopper Mountain Refuge for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “It could have been shot and then made it to the refuge before it died. It could have been foraging in the ground and been attacked by a coyote.” It could also have been killed by eating a lead-poisoned carcass: Hunters’ bullets, left embedded in carrion, still pose by far the greatest threat to the birds’ survival in the wild. Then again, AC2 was old. “It could have died of old age,” says Hall.The bird has been taken to the San Diego Zoo for a necropsy, but zoo spokeswoman Yadira Galindo sounded pessimistic about pinpointing a cause. “Right now we have no idea of telling what happened,” she says, “and it might be hard for us to ever know.”Without playing down the loss of the bird, Hall insists that AC2’s death won’t threaten the condor recovery program. “Anytime we lose a condor it’s a setback,” he says. “But it won’t prevent us from releasing birds. We have to work with the issues that are there, be they random shootings by hunters or lead poisoning.” (Another wild-born condor, a female named AC8, was shot down by a hunter in February 2003.) “But this was an important bird,” he adds. “It does eliminate that link with the Santa Barbara line.” The news comes at a time when a delegation in Congress, led by Republican Richard Pombo of Tracy, has proposed gutting the Endangered Species Act and other habitat protections to speed up industrial recovery from Hurricane Katrina. “That’s the worst of it,” says George. “That so many people might use this as an excuse to undo endangered species protection, saying it’s not working. But what it really means is that we need more protected habitat, not less. If there hadn’t been protected habitat, this bird wouldn’t have been out there at all. It’s devastating to think that habitat might be taken away. I was crying for all of it.”


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