Environment / Nature

Central Coast condors fall victim to Dolan Fire

Two chicks perish, nine free-flying adults remain missing.

The Central Coast California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) which consist of the Pinnacles National Park flock and the Ventana Wildlife Society flock have lost several members to the Dolan Fire in Big Sur.

On Sept. 11, Ventana issued a press release on condor loss. “We are saddened to share the news that two of the five condor chicks previously reported as being in harm’s way have perished in the Dolan Fire.” The two chicks are condor #1022 and condor #1029. Nine free-flying adult condors remain unaccounted for.

Adult condor in Pinnacles holding pen. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.
Adult condor in Pinnacles holding pen. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.

The two flocks have become one larger flock, with birds flying between the areas surrounding Pinnacles and Big Sur. Reproductive adults form long-term bonds and nest within both territories. Teams of biologists from both facilities monitor the larger flock together. 

The Dolan Fire—which has burned 127,724 acres and is at 45% containment as of Sept. 18— destroyed Ventana’s condor release pen and research facility.

“My heart is broken because for more than 20 years I have lived with these birds,” said Joe Burnett, Ventana’s condor program manager. “To lose any is a tragedy but we will rise from the ashes and rebuild the condor’s sanctuary and continue our mission to recover this species.”

One of the surviving chicks, #1033, was rescued by biologists from Pinnacles and Ventana just days before the fire burned over her nest.

“We could see that the fire was burning toward 1033’s nest and offered to help rescue her while there was still a chance,” Alacia Welch, acting condor program manager at Pinnacles National Park, said in the release. “To see the fire burn over her nest just a few days later really made me feel glad that we took action when we did.”

A juvenile condor perched on the outside of Pinnacles holding pen. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.
A juvenile condor perched on the outside of Pinnacles holding pen. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.

The nine missing adult condors are Ventana Flock #167, #375, #678, #773, #789, #875, Pinnacles Flock #448, and two wild-raised birds: #9001 and #9003. Condor #448 is the father of chick #1022, which perished. 9001 and 9003 are temporary identification numbers until DNA information comes in, after which they will then be assigned their permanent number which is in order of hatching. One of the missing adults is one of the oldest birds in the flock; a 24-year-old male. Six birds are breeding females. 

Welch told BenitoLink that as each day passes, the hope of finding any of these birds alive diminishes.

“The California Condor Recovery Program has faced setbacks in the past, but we will continue to work with our dedicated partners, the Ventana Wildlife Society and Pinnacles National Park, toward our ultimate goal of recovering the California condor in the wild,” said Steve Kirkland, condor field coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). “While the loss of these wild birds is discouraging, we will release nine more captive-reared birds later this fall, and we are hopeful the remaining wild chicks will strengthen the overall California condor population.”

According to the release, a cohort of nine condors will be transferred to Central California some time this month, with seven planned to be released in San Simeon and two at Pinnacles.

Adult condor being released at Pinnacles following a health check. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.
Adult condor being released at Pinnacles following a health check. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.

Regarding the Pinnacles Condor Recovery Program, Welch told BenitoLink there will be an uptick in her team’s work, as they will be tracking all the birds and holding any in need as Ventana clears the rubble. She added that they clear the area around the condor pen of brush every year and the pen is “pretty fireproof.” Still, they are on high alert and know they need to be extra vigilant at this time. 

At the beginning of this year, the Central Coast flock had about 100 birds, but several were lost to lead toxicity and other factors. Welch said that without knowing exact numbers the count is probably around 90. She remains hopeful that Ventana will recover soon and that of the nine birds planned for release, seven of them will, as planned, be released by Ventana and two released by Pinnacles. For now they will house all nine and if necessary, release all nine.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, “Since 1992 . . . the USFWS and its public and private partners have grown the population to 410 birds. In 2008, the recovery program reached an important milestone, with more California condors flying free in the wild than in captivity for the first time since the program began.”


BenitoLink is a nonprofit news website that reports on San Benito County. Our team is working around the clock during this time when accurate information is essential. It is expensive to produce local news and community support is what keeps the news flowing. Please consider supporting BenitoLink, San Benito County’s news.

Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.