Science | December 11, 2020 1:52 pm

Will Increasing Wildfires Push California Condors Back to Extinction?

This year’s Dolan Fire killed 11 condors and destroyed a research facility

California condor in the wild
The California condor has had a promising few years. Wildfires could upend that.
Weili Li/Getty Images

“I’m just amazed at how tough and resilient these birds are,” Joe Burnett told Wired of the California condor. “I’m continually amazed at the resilience of this species. They’re just such survivors.”

At the Ventana Wildlife Society, a California nonprofit, Burnett serves as a condor recovery program manager. He’s seen firsthand how the California condor, the largest land bird in North America, has gone from being classified as extinct in the wild in 1987 to seeing a triumphant return and spread across the country in recent years. 

Enter 2020. The Dolan Fire burned Ventana’s Big Sur research facility to the ground earlier this year and killed 11 California condors, “10 percent of the Big Sur flock,” as Wired notes — and that wildfire is still burning to this day, despite starting in August. The magazine has the larger story on how these increasingly numerous and devastating fires, fueled by climate change, pose a threat to the species just as they’re showing signs of recovery. 

“It’s put us in crisis management for the last few months,” Gavin Emmons, who works with the Pinnacles National Park condor recovery program, told the outlet. “With the Dolan Fire going through and all the birds either dying from the fire or burned heavily, and then subsequently having to catch those birds and handle them, seeing the damage and the extreme burns that they’ve suffered — it’s been hard on all of us.”

But the story also details some hopeful moments, including Emmons rappelling down a cliff to save a condor chick before a wildfire reached the area, and how another young bird survived by hiding in the back of a cave.

As Burnett said, these are tough birds. But whether or not they can adapt fast enough remains to be seen.

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