VERMILION CLIFFS — The first pair of breeding-age California condors were among those released into the wild this month at Vermilion Cliffs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported. They joined 15 young condors already flying in Grand Canyon-area skies.
The pair of condors were flown in early November from the captive breeding program at the Peregrine Fund's World Center of Prey in Boise, Idaho to Marble Canyon and then transported to Vermilion Cliffs. In addition, another pair of breeding-age condors, eight young condors and one condor that was previously released and brought back into captivity due to his attraction to humans were flown to the release site.
Since arriving, they have been acclimating to the area while being housed in two flight pens atop Vermilion Cliffs and establishing a social order among themselves. The new condors were being regularly visited by the wild condors roosting in the area.
The second pair of breeding-age condors was scheduled to be released last week with the other nine birds' release tentatively scheduled for Dec. 29. When all released, there will be 28 California condors in northern Arizona.
Biologists are anxious to observe the mated pairs and hope they will be reproductive role models for the younger condors — released since 1996 as fledglings — as they reach reproductive maturity.
"The mated pairs have spent their whole lives in captivity so they will be learning survival lessons from the 15 younger birds in the Grand Canyon and southern Utah area," said Nancy Kaufman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Southwest regional director. "These could be the first California condors to reproduce in the wild in over 15 years. Restoring breeding in the wild will greatly advance condor recovery."
The release of the breeding-age condors is a major step for the program.
"Production in the wild is what recovery of endangered species is all about and the release of adult pairs of condors brings us closer to that goal," said Bill Heinrich, species restoration manager for the Peregrine Fund. "These two captive pairs could lay fertile eggs in a year or two. There are also two pairs in the wild that could lay eggs as early as 2002. With this release, we believe the project has moved to the next level."
Becky Hammond, acting manager for the Bureau of Land Management's new Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, said "it is very exciting for us to be involved with the condor restoration effort."
The two pairs of adult condors were hatched in California in 1991 and 1992.
The Arizona release is a joint project between the Peregrine Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Arizona Game and Fish, the National Park Service and numerous other partners.
The condors are being released as a "nonessential/experimental population" under the Endangered Species Act. The section provides that the species can be released in an area without impacting current of future land use planning.
There are currently 164 California condors in the world — 55 in the wild in California and Arizona and 109 in captive breeding facilities.