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Precarious return of the condor watched with joy, skepticism

The dodo bird is dead, but the condor carries on - "El Condor Pasa," in the words of the storied song - staging a precarious comeback here that's being watched from afar with joy by one faction, skepticism by another.

Eleven of 15 endangered California condors released in an experimental federal program that started a year ago remain perched most of the time today along the Vermillion Cliffs just across the Utah-Arizona border 60 miles southeast of Kanab.The scavengers, with spectacular wing spans of almost 10 feet, nest atop cliffs three miles from the nearest highway, where birders line up daily to peer through powerful binoculars and spotting scopes mounted on cars and pickup windows.

"Yesterday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. it was a steady stream of people - somebody was here constantly," said Shawn Farry, a Peregrine Fund wildlife biologist manning his roadside post the other day.

Farry, one of a small cadre of ornithologists tracking the birds visually and by radio signals, watches them all day every day along U.S. 89A in Coconino County, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Boise-based Peregrine Fund are trying to jump start a condor presence that hasn't been substantial here since the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.

Casualties were expected, and casualties have occurred.

A golden eagle killed one of the young condors, another was electrocuted on a power line 25 miles up the Colorado River near Lake Powell, a third disappeared mysteriously and a fourth was returned to captivity after an unfortunate encounter with construction workers at Page.

The latter bird took a perch out of curiosity at a building site near town, where friendly workers were so enchanted they gave it food and water, a disastrous event in the scheme to restore condors to the arid Southwest.

"Once they get fed by people, it's all over," said Mark Vekasy, the project's field supervisor, who said such associations are hard to break.

Feedings by humans create a bond that resembles domesticity, a result entirely unwanted by the federal government and the Peregrine Fund, which are trying to establish a wild flock as a backup to the only other one in existence, in California.

Whether humans and condors are compatible is a question that has stirred controversy around the project.

In San Juan County on the Utah side of the state line, doubts linger about the introduction of a bird protected by the demanding Endangered Species Act, which when it comes into play often triggers a host of land-use restrictions loathed by traditional resource-development interests in the West.

"The first time somebody wants to explore for minerals, they'll say, `We've got a condor habitat there, you can't do that,' " said San Juan County Attorney Craig Halls, who unsuccessfully sued last year to block the project before it began.

A federal judge dismissed the complaint, saying that the county had failed to show how it might be damaged by the presence of condors.

Halls - and other critics of the experiment - say local residents have no objection to the birds per se because condors feed on carrion and pose no threat to livestock. Concerns revolve instead around the belief that federal protections will ultimately thwart economic expansion in an area that lags behind a regional boom centered in the West's urban centers but so far is unrealized in many rural locales.

Though the federal government has conducted the condor program under the auspices of an almost revolutionary interpretation of the Endangered Species Act in which many protections are suspended, skeptics remain wary.

"That gives us some comfort, yes, and we're willing to take them at their word, but we don't have complete trust," Halls said, recalling a history in which locals feel their land-use rights have been trampled.

In particular, he noted an ongoing and rancorous fight between the county and the Department of the Interior about jurisdiction over backcountry roads and whether vast tracts of public lands should be set aside as wilderness or left open to mining and other development.

Not to worry, insisted Vekasy.

"The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service went a long way by designating the population as experimental and nonessential," Vekasy said. "They have full protection against harassment and shooting, but they're not going to impact traditional land uses - ranching, logging, mining."

The argument has won some former critics over.

Jim Matson, a Kanab resident and chairman of a group that promotes "sustainable economies" in the area, said the bird's reappearance is welcome because the government agreed not to give it full endangered-species protection.

"Our initial concerns were that, after the Mexican spotted owl and northern goshawks, now they're turning B-52s loose on us," Matson said.

"Now we're after what they call ecotourism . . . we want folks to come to our area as a destination and see the birds."

The Arizona condors inhabit an area where all three activities occur, and their range is enormous, covering thousands of square miles.

The birds can drift up to 150 miles a day on thermal currents, and members of the Vermillion Cliff flock have been spotted already as far into Utah as Arches National Park, 180 miles to the north.

Vekasy said they have learned gradually to forage for themselves and are being weaned from food placed along clifftops for them by Peregrine Fund scientists. Preferred delicacies include large deer carcasses on the Kaibab Plateau and the occasional dead-livestock find.

Members of the Arizona group are in select company by their mere existence. Only 134 California condors are alive today, a population that is relatively robust compared with its low point of 23 during the early 1980s.

An even more exclusive membership is in the wild-condor population. California - under a similar program - counts 15, a number that will be matched in a few weeks by Arizona.

After being transported by plane and helicopter from their breeding pens at the Los Angeles Zoo, four more of the big birds will be set free along the Vermillion Cliffs by late November.