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No Days of the Condor: Will Tejon Ranch Doom the Birds?


The Tejon Ranch is 270,000 acres of golden grassland and brooding oaks that were once part of an Army Fort before falling into the hands of the L.A. Times' Chandler family a century ago. For decades the land, which stretches from the Antelope Valley to the Tehachapis, has glowed pristinely on either side of Interstate 5. Until, that is, vast parcels were sold off for development in 2003. The new developers envision what any Californian would dream of for a drought-racked environment filled with endangered species -- lots of golf courses, resort hotels, luxury homes and the cutting off of ancient wildlife corridors. This has not gone over well with environmentalists, who have been engaged in a war of wills that has ranged from dialogue to lawsuits.

The latest scuffle involves plans for the proposed Tejon Mountain Village area, which is petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the ranch to set aside artificial feeding stations for condors -- one of 27 at-risk species found at the ranch. Currently the ranch has a lead-free hunting policy that encourages hunters, after dressing the game they've shot with non-lead bullets, to leave the "gut pile" behind for condors. The proposed elevated stations would be stocked with animal carcasses (i.e., stillborn calves) but would replace the scavengers' natural foraging grounds -- that tennis court over there, for example.

Last year several conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, negotiated a land-preservation agreement with Tejon Ranch that included provisions for a condor sanctuary. However, the Center for Biological Diversity is claiming the ranch's Habitat Conservation Plan amounts to a death sentence for the giant birds, which use the area's updrafts to glide over hills in search of carrion. In other words, condors aren't humming birds that can be kept alive on feeders.

Barry Zoeller, vice president of corporate communications for Tejon

Ranch, claims that the artificial feeding stations, in concert with the

ranch's hunting policies, provide year-round food  supplies for

condors. He also says that Tejon's program has been worked out with the

USFWS and the state's Condor Recovery Program, and shares with those

agencies an ultimate goal of drawing condors away from the coastal

mountains and toward the safer southern Sierras.

"What they've discovered is that you control them where they're fed," Zoeller says. "We make sure there is food for condors."

Enviros are clearly gearing up for a fight to block the proposal,

although it's far from certain what their chances will be. Days before

Barack Obama's inauguration, the USFWS released its long-awaited

evaluation of Tejon Ranch's Habit Conservation Plan. Crafted by the

Bush administration, the report stuck gold stars all over the plan.

What was shocking (at the time, at least) was the Obama White House's

apparent refusal to review and reverse the USFWS's endorsement of the

Tejon plan.

Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Center for

Biological Diversity (which is not part of the state's Condor Recovery

Program), says that while feeder stations are commonly used to acclimatize

zoo-born condors released into the wild, they will only inhibit the

birds from becoming wild again at Tejon, which serves as a crossroads

for two condor flight paths.

"Condors are now discovering Tejon Ranch," Miller says. "These feeding stations will just relegate them to zoo species."