BIG SUR — Five California condors stepped tentatively into the wilderness and then flew away Thursday, the latest move in a difficult effort to bring the rare birds back from near-extinction.
The release was attended by U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who drew measured praise from environmentalists who welcomed her presence but questioned her commitment to the Endangered Species Act.
“I think its time for freedom. Open the door,” Norton said through a radio, prompting one the birds’ handlers to pull a rope opening their pen.
Soon the three females and two males were flying over a 4,000-foot high ridge overlooking the Pacific in the Ventana wilderness, a rugged section of California’s wild central coast.
About 150 environmentalists, politicians and scientists gathered on a remote ridge for the big moment. The only journalist who saw it up close was AP photographer Ben Margot, who shot pictures from behind a blind about 140 feet away.
A “mentor bird” that had been released and then captured again for the job of leading the five chicks into the wild entered the pen. Then, one by one, the mentor and the chicks stepped out into the stiff ocean breeze.
“Most of the chicks looked around. Some hopped off onto a little perch and raised their wings, stretching them in the wind before flying away in different directions.
“I’ll never forget the sound the wind made as they flew over,” Margot said. “Even as chicks, their wings are huge. It sounded like a huge kite going over your head.”
Nancy Weiss, an activist with the Defenders of Wildlife, expressed hopes that Norton’s presence shows the Bush administration recognizes that Americans “want more, not less protection for endangered species, wilderness, and natural resources.”
Norton said no decisions have been made, but she is reviewing the law.
“What I would like to do is look at existing programs to minimize conflict within the Endangered Species Act,” Norton said. “Too often landowners are afraid to find endangered species on their land.”
Norton said part of the reason she wanted to see the release is because she worked on lawsuits in the 1980s that led to the capturing of all condors to breed them in captivity and boost their numbers.
The release site is nearby Fort Hunter, a military base where the Navy wants to drop more bombs.
U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., has been a vocal opponent of the Navy’s proposed expansion, in part because of the area’s sensitive wildlife.
“The success of bringing the condor back is because the habitat is not in conflict with different uses,” Farr said. “I’m trying to get all the secretaries out here to see what we are trying to do for restoration and preservation.”
Norton said she was still learning about the Navy’s plan but said she is sure that steps would be taken to accommodate the condors.
Norton, a strong supporter of property rights, has advocated that the government pay landowners for losses they might suffer from regulations that limit how they can use their land.
But the release of condors into the wild has garnered little opposition, said Kelly Sorenson, assistant director of the Ventana Wilderness Society, the group that released the condors Thursday. Condor releases also are done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Peregrine Fund.
After Thursday’s release, the total wild condor population is 51, including 24 in California and 27 in Arizona.
Their habitat is the mostly coastal mountain ranges from Canada to Mexico, and they nest in caves or crevices on steep cliffs.
The bird, a large scavenger related to the vulture, was first put on the endangered species list in 1967.
In 1890, there were an estimated 600 condors, but that number dropped to an all-time low in 1982, when there were only 22 in existence.
To preserve the species, all condors were taken out of the wild, with the last one being caught in 1987.
The program to release them back into the wild, primarily in national forests, began in 1992, and now there are a total of 160 in the wild and in captivity.
The goal is to have 150 condors in the wild, with 15 of those being breeding pairs.
The condors being released Thursday all are 1 year old.
While the reasons for the condors’ decline are numerous, two major causes were poisoning and shooting. The birds are susceptible to lead poisoning, which they sometimes ingest from carcasses of animals that have been shot.
Also, the condors breed infrequently — laying eggs only every other year.
Since the rerelease began, 117 have been sent into the wild, but 42 of those have died and 26 have been brought back into captivity because they had too much interaction with humans.