Feds, Kern County Look to Prevent More Condor Deaths

Condor 536, found dead in a water tank on October 2
| Photo: USFWS Condor Recovery Program

With two California condors found dead in firefighters' "dip tanks" west of Tehachapi in the past month, condor experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working with the Kern County Fire Department to see if there's any way to prevent future mortalities.

According to John McCamman, California Condor Coordinator for USFWS' Pacific Southwest Region, possible solutions on the table may include physical ways of deterring condors from lighting on the edges of the tanks, or providing ways for the birds to climb out of the tanks once they fall in. "We're still in the early stages of exploring the problem," McCamman told ReWild, "and we need to find a solution that'll work for the firefighters as well."

Condor 536, a four-year-old female who was hatched in captivity, was found in a dip tank near Stallion Springs October 2. Just two weeks later, Condor 630, a two-year-old female, was found in another tank near Bear Valley Springs on October 17. Condor 630 was hatched in the wild from an egg laid in captivity and swapped into a wild nest by condor biologists, making her one of very few of her species hatched and reared in the wild.

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Both birds are being examined by the USFWS' forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon to see if actual causes of death can be determined. It may take as long as two months before biologists have any answers, and the fact that both birds were likely in the tanks for some time won't make things easier.

But McCamman points out that the upland area where the birds were found, west of Tehachapi Pass, has been drying out for months. That raises the possibility that the tanks may have been just too tempting for the birds. "All the little streams, springs, and ponds in that part of the mountains have been dwindling since summer," said McCamman.

Dip tanks are open-topped reservoirs used to provide a source of water for firefighting helicopters, which hover over the tanks and pump water into their on-board water tanks by means of a snorkel. Here's a video of a Kern County Fire Department helicopter using a sunken dip tank near Frazier Park:

Modifying dip tanks to keep condors safe might not be particularly straightforward: any additions that might snag that snorkel would make the water resupply process even more delicate and hazardous than it already is.

California condors are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The law provides for fines of up to $1,000 for unintentional harm to a member of a listed species.

Hopefully, a win-win solution can be found so that dip tanks in condor country can be made safer for all concerned. In the meantime, California has two fewer condors to keep the species going.

Condor 536, rest in peace. | Photo: USFWS Condor Recovery Program

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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