Severe Wildfires Are Devastating the California Condor

The Dolan Fire ended up consuming 124,924 acres of Los Padres National Forest and killed 11 condors, 10 percent of the Big Sur flock. (Ultimately, the Ventana team released 17 condors this year in California.) Ventana biologists later found birds with hot gas burns on their feet, like the skin had melted away as the fire passed underneath their bellies. The fire also destroyed Ventana’s condor research facility and release site infrastructure. The pens where the birds are sometimes kept became mangled ruins of chain link fences. The lab facility for the wildlife biologists was flattened. Livestreaming cameras melted, and burned trees fell, blocking the only road to the facility.

“It’s put us in crisis management for the last few months,” Emmons says of the severe wildfire season in Big Sur. “With the Dolan Fire going through and all the birds either dying from the fire or burned heavily, and then subsequently having to catch those birds and handle them, seeing the damage and the extreme burns that they’ve suffered—it’s been hard on all of us.”

Photograph: Stephanie Herrera/Ventana Wildlife Society

And it’s not only happening in California. Earlier in the summer, 700 miles away from Big Sur, near the Grand Canyon, the condor program manager at the Peregrine Fund, Tim Hauck, also set off to check on a chick who had been caught in the Pine Hollow Fire. The fire had passed over the cave where the chick had been residing. Hauck hiked for hours, off-trail through a rough, scorched desert in 106-degree heat, before he caught a glimpse of the three-month-old, alive and being fed by its parents. “The chick likely retreated to the back of the cave where it would be the safest.” Hauck said. “And while it probably got very hot as the fire passed over, the chick was able to survive and the parents came back.”

While Arizona’s wildfires didn’t lead to any condor deaths, both the Pine Hollow Fire and the Mangum Fire threatened the birds. As the fires grew, Peregrine Fund staffers had to remove freeflying birds and bring them into captivity for protection. They also temporarily lost track of another six-week-old chick, and worried that he had perished in the fire. But a few days later, a biologist was able to confirm that the nestling was healthy and active.

According to Victoria Bakker, a quantitative conservation biologist at Montana State University, the 11 condors who died in the Dolan Fire were the only ones lost to wildfires this year, but prior to 2020, there have been seven suspected fire-related condor deaths since the start of rehabilitation efforts in 1992. Before this year, the greatest number of condors presumed lost in a single fire was only two. “It’s an added year of mortality in one event,” Bakker says of the Dolan Fire.

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