Early on a September morning, with the smell of smoke in the air as a wildfire raged five miles away, a team set out on a search and rescue attempt in Big Sur. A few weeks before, they had spent hours clearing chaparral to hike in to the site. Today, they had to set rope gear and rappel 50 feet to a cliffside cave. One of the rescuers, Gavin Emmons, hung 100 feet above the ground, then squirmed his way through a 3-foot-wide hole before wriggling 10 feet into the cave to reach his target. But this search and rescue wasn’t for a lost hiker or an injured rock climber. Instead, Emmons made his way toward a 15-pound baby condor hiding in its nest. He needed to get the endangered chick out before the Dolan Fire reached the cave.
Emmons trapped the bird between his legs, making sure the chick wouldn’t accidentally fall over the edge of the cliff during its instinctual attempt to escape, and transferred it to a modified trash can. The second member of the operation, Alacia Welch, who had repelled down after him and hung on a rope near the cave entrance, lowered the bird to the ground, where a car was waiting to take it to the Los Angeles Zoo.
“It wasn’t going to be a good outcome for this chick in a cave, surrounded by really thick brush,” says Joe Burnett, condor recovery program manager at the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit that has been releasing and managing the repopulation efforts of condors in Big Sur since 1997, and had organized the day’s rescue mission. “This area’s known to burn really hot. So we just knew that our best bet was to get the nestling out before this fire reached it.” Emmons and Welch are part of the Pinnacles National Park condor recovery program, and had been tapped by the Ventana members to coordinate this evacuation when the fire began encroaching on the nest.
In 1967, the California condor was placed on the federal endangered species list. But over the past five decades, with the help of captive breeding and rehabilitation organizations, the population has grown from 20 to almost 500 birds. Today, only 340 of those are free-flying across the west; the rest are in captivity. Condor rehabilitations programs typically help release young captive birds into the wild in September, provide a clean and untainted food source for the flock, collect their blood samples, and track the birds across California, Oregon, Northern Arizona, and Southern Utah during the summers. But this year, these states all had particularly devastating wildfires seasons. Some 3.2 million acres burned just in California; both the LNU Lightning Complex and the CZU Lightning Complex fires cracked the top 10 most destructive fires in the state’s history. Arizona also had three of its biggest wildfires in 2020. Nationwide, there were over 3,500 more wildfires compared to 2019. After an unprecedented fire season, condor experts are evaluating how increasingly aggressive fires could jeopardize their rehabilitation efforts.
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.”
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.
Wildlife biologists who have dedicated their lives to increasing the condor population also had to adjust to a season of prolonged separation from—and inability to track—their birds. They use a combination of telemetry and GPS to follow the birds on foot and by car, to keep in visual contact with them. But this year the fires made it too dangerous for trackers to enter the field and the roads were closed to allow firefighters fast and easy access. Along with the Covid-19 restrictions that shut down field operations in April and May for some programs, some trackers went up to three months without monitoring the birds.
This tracking is important because the flocks are carefully supervised to protect against lead poisoning, the greatest killer of condors by far. Condors are scavengers that often feed on carcasses of animals. But if those animals were shot using lead ammunition, the birds can become sick. The condors return to release sites, like the one in Big Sur, for untainted food and to sleep. According to Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, it’s a place they feel safe. “Right now, you have this heavily managed release site,” he says. “We are constantly trapping and checking and treating [the birds] for lead. There’s a lot of intense management right now.”
Because the flock has to be so meticulously managed, condor sites like the one in Big Sur are centralized and crowded. The biologists lure the birds back with food, check their blood for lead poisoning and sometimes even bring the birds into captivity, all in a bid to keep them healthy. Yet the fact that so many members of the species are returning to one place makes wildfires even more dangerous, as the Dolan Fire proved in one fell swoop. When the fire, now suspected to be arson, flared up only a few miles away from the sanctuary in the early hours of the morning, both the birds and the ornithologists were caught off guard. “There was no time to react,” Sorenson said. “[Condors are] not nocturnal. They don’t fly at night. I think they just got caught in a very uncommon, uncompromising position. It’s a devastating blow.”
But while this fire season took a particularly harsh toll on both the birds and the biologists, experts don’t know exactly how the increase in wildfire activity will affect the condor population. “When we simulate the population, we just assume that there’s an occasional death to fire,” says Bakker. “But this type of catastrophic loss of birds is something entirely different and something that we didn’t anticipate. We need a better understanding of what the likelihood of this type of event is going forward. What is the expected frequency? We need to start thinking about that now.”
And it’s not simply the number of dead birds that are concerning, but which birds. The Big Sur population lost mainly adult birds, nine out of the 11. Condors don’t breed until they are between six and eight years old and females only produce an egg every other year. According to Bakker, an adult bird is inherently more valuable to repopulation efforts because it has already established a mate and is contributing chicks. It’s something Bakker can actually calculate in her models, which show that an adult breeder is worth two to three times more to the population than a younger bird.
Condors are also extremely social birds and have designated roles in the flock. The loss of these adults created a power void in the Big Sur flock’s dynamics that threatened the life of a condor chick long after the fire had been extinguished. According to Sorenson, an adolescent male tried to insert himself into one of those vacant dominant positions by harassing a mother and her chick. While the mother was able to protect herself, the chick was prematurely forced out of the nest and left on the ground with a limp.
Steve Kirkland, field coordinator for the California Condor recovery program at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says the agency is beginning to make contingency plans for future fire seasons, like coordinating with zoos and research facilities to make space for an influx of burned or displaced birds. As for the Ventana team, they have their own contingency plan: The organization has a second site in San Simeon where they can continue to release condors while the Big Sur location is rebuilt over the next few years. “If we did not have our San Simeon release site, we’d be in a world of hurt,” Sorenson says. “But we need to get to the point where we’re producing enough birds to put them out in many different locations. We shouldn’t be so dependent on a handful of heavily concentrated areas.”
While the condor’s long adolescence and slow breeding cycle has made repopulation a very gradual process, in some ways the birds are well suited to adapt to a continually changing climate. They aren’t dependent on one food source or one type of tree for nesting. They battled their way back from the brink of extinction once, and experts hope wildfires won’t be the birds’ undoing. “I’m just amazed at how tough and resilient these birds are,” Burnett says. “I’m continually amazed at the resilience of this species. They’re just such survivors.”