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The decades-long project to prevent the extinction of the California condor is facing a new crisis due to the widespread strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported Wednesday that six condors have been confirmed to have died of HPAI since March 20, and another 12 deceased birds are believed to have had the disease. Five other condors are being tested for avian flu and receiving treatment.
All dead and sick birds belong to the free-flying Wild Southwest flock, found in northern Arizona and southern Utah. At the end of 2022, this herd numbered 116 individuals. The 18 birds that died in about three weeks represent 15% of the southwestern flock. (Earlier this week, we reported on the first three confirmed deaths.)
“Until further notice,” the FWS wrote, “we will report all deceased condors in the Southwest herd found on or after March 30, 2023, as ‘Suspicious HPAI’.” more test results are coming.
The Arizona-Utah population moves through northern Arizona and southern Utah, using the landscape of Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Kaibab Plateau and surrounding areas. To date, the virus has not been detected in other condor populations in California or Baja California, Mexico.
“Not a question of if but when”
However, the nonprofit Ventana Wildlife Society, one of California’s leading condor recovery organizations, says on its website that other species in the area have tested positive for HPAI. Bird flu has been documented in red-headed vultures, snowy plovers and several species of waterfowl in Monterey County this year, “perilously close to the free-flying condor herd in central California.” HPAI is all around us now, so it’s not a question of if but when an outbreak will occur.
Ventana Wildlife adds, “Our condor team has followed strict safety protocols when handling condors since before the disease occurred in central California and prepared for quarantine and treatment through partners. . Although a vaccine does exist, it is not currently available in the United States and the timing of its availability is unknown. Therefore, we need to build temporary quarantine enclosures and provide additional veterinary support in order to be even better prepared. These quarantine sites will allow infected birds to receive supportive care in an environment away from zoos, domestic poultry and the free-flying condor population, helping to mitigate the spread of this devastating disease while infected condors receive medical treatment. Additionally, quarantine pens will be used to vaccinate the wild herd when the vaccine becomes available.
“In addition to the measures taken since 2022 to prevent the spread of HPAI, we are now working closely with partners to develop even more contingency plans. This week we raised $80,000 to support the purchase of 10 quarantine pens arriving in two weeks SPCA for Monterey County [the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] approved the temporary use of their land to install these enclosures. Once placed, these enclosures can be used for treatment, vaccination (if available) and even protection of healthy condors against HPAI. We are especially grateful to our partners at the Monterey County SPCA for their collaboration. »
Meanwhile, The Peregrine Fund, one of the leading condor recovery organizations for the southwestern herd, has issued an emergency appeal for donations. The request specifies:
“Almost immediately, our team in Arizona, led by Program Director Tim Hauck, amplified efforts to remedy this situation, up to and including the recovery of birds from the formidable canyonlands of northern Arizona and southern from Utah. Our field biologists are currently monitoring individual birds for symptoms and collecting sick or deceased birds for necropsies.
“While the goal of our work is to recover this critically endangered species through captive breeding, release and monitoring, this emergency requires increased and intensified human resources and equipment to protect this critical population. This is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Partners like Zion National Park are already supporting this emergency effort by rappelling from 250-foot cliffs to retrieve condors. This arduous and dangerous work requires more resources on the ground right now, and other needs will continue to develop.
Joanna Gilkeson, a spokesperson for the FWS, explains that the Peregrine Fund rescues birds that are seen in distress, and recovers any dead birds that are spotted. “In addition, they are taking steps to limit any within-herd transmission by discouraging congregation, which often occurs at communal feed and water stations provided by recovery partners,” Gilkeson said. “These recovery actions have been put on hold until it is deemed safe to do so. For the birds.”
I asked Gilkeson if any wild condors would be captured and brought into captivity to try to prevent more birds from getting sick. “The Condor Recovery Program is working with our partners to identify the best way to respond to HPAI in Arizona and prepare For such an event in California,” she says. “There have been no decisions to capture and hold birds. Establishing quarantine pens is a proactive measure that can be used For for multiple purposes, including bird testing if HPAI was detected in flocks in California.
I also asked how the HPAI crisis is affecting the current nesting season. Gilkeson replied, “Confirmation of HPAI in the southwestern condor herd is an emerging and fluid situation. It’s too early to speculate what this means For THE Arizona-Utah herd and resumption of condor and nesting season.
Editor’s note: Story updated at 9 p.m. EST on April 13, with quotes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.