Special to The SLO Telegram-Tribune by Hi Mountain volunteer John FitzRandolph
Posted on Sat, Sep. 09, 2006
For those keeping track of significant dates in California wildlife conservation history, mark April 19, 1987, in bright red ink.
On that day, the last free-flying Gymnogyps californianus — California Condor — was plucked from the wild and moved to a captive breeding program at the San Diego Zoo. Along with 26 other captured condors — all that remained from the estimated thousands who soared the western skies during the last Pleistocene epoch (ice age) 10,000 years ago — that last wild condor was knocking on extinction’s door.
Still, while North America’s largest birds, weighing up to 30 pounds with 91⁄2-foot wingspans, entered the boldest captive breeding program in U.S. history, high-visibility ornithologists, biologists and outdoor experts said it would never work.
Fortunately, those dissenters were wrong, and the condor has subsequently been resurrected, rolling away the stone of doubt for this and other endangered species.
Indeed, first-time visitors making the rocky 6-mile trek through the shallow Salinas River and up twisty Hi Mountain Road to the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout Project west of Pozo are discovering the California Condor Recovery Program is a sizzling success.
Let’s be clear: the chances of seeing a condor circling the Hi Mountain lookout site are slim, albeit the colossal birds do fly near the lookout on their pilgrimages between Big Sur/Pinnacles in Monterey County and Sespe Wilderness/Bitter Creek in Ventura County.
A pivotal point of the recovery effort is to encourage the condors to travel and socialize with other condors.
Biologists and Cal Poly interns use telemetry technology to track the condors’ movements, part of the Hi Mountain daily duties visitors can witness up close, as the birds fly, hang out and eat with other recently released condors.
Ultimately, the plan is for condors to cruise the state, find their own food, meet, mate, lay eggs, raise chicks and become prolific in the same way bald eagles re-emerged from near obscurity to their proud prolific population today. The Hi Mountain portion of that plan utilizes the combined resources of U.S. Forest
Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Morro Coast Audubon Society.
Meanwhile, tentative plans are under way to create a central feeding location in the Santa Lucia Wilderness in San Luis Obispo County; condors from around the state would congregate and share nutritious meals of stillborn calves and fresh-thawed raw rats, mice and rabbits.
(Yes, that’s what they are fed by field biologists in the four release areas.)
As for the current free- flying condors, 28 thrive in the Ventana Wilderness area, 13 call Pinnacles
National Monument home, 22 live in the Sespe Wilderness and Bitter Creek areas in Ventura County and around 60 are in the Grand Canyon area.
Visitors to the Hi Mountain Research & Interpretive Center — on the ground floor of the lookout — have access to an impressive collection of native animal specimens, a Condor egg, feathers and more.
And speaking of impressive, the vistas from 3,180-foot Hi Mountain Condor Lookout are certainly that. On a clear day, looking south, the eye takes in Lopez Lake, Pismo Beach, the Nipomo Dunes, Avila and more; looking west, Santa Margarita Lake is like a little pond in the distance; to the north, Black Mountain, the San Andres Fault (Temblor Range) and some days even the snow-capped High Sierra Mountains are visible.
For camping enthusiasts, the drive up Hi Mountain Road to the condor lookout leads to the U.S. Forest
Service Hi Mountain Campground; ten campsites offer fire rings and picnic tables; it’s first-come, first served and about a mile and a half below the lookout. Other nearby hiking trails and an invitation to the public to attend the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout Open House on Oct. 14 is available online at www.condorlookout.org.