Secretary of Interior helps release rare condors into wild |

Secretary of Interior helps release rare condors into wild

BIG SUR, Calif. (AP) – Five California condors stepped tentatively into the wilderness and then flew away Thursday, the latest move in a difficult effort to bring the rare birds back from near-extinction.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton was among the about 150 environmentalists, politicians and scientists gathered on a remote ridge for the big moment.

”I think its time for freedom. Open the door,” Norton said through a radio, prompting one the birds’ handlers to pull a rope opening their pen.

Soon the three females and two males were flying over a 4,000-foot high ridge overlooking the Pacific in the Ventana wilderness, a rugged section of California’s wild central coast.

Norton said part of the reason she wanted to see the release is because she fought lawsuits that tried to prevent the government from capturing all condors to breed them in captivity and boost their numbers. She was associate solicitor at the Interior Department during the Reagan administration.

Nancy Weiss, an activist with the Defenders of Wildlife, expressed hopes that Norton’s presence shows the Bush administration recognizes that Americans ”want more, not less protection for endangered species, wilderness, and natural resources.”

Norton said no decisions have been made, but she is reviewing the law

”What I would like to do is look at existing programs to minimize conflict within the Endangered Species Act,” Norton said. ”Too often landowners are afraid to find endangered species on their land.”

After Thursday’s release, the total wild condor population is 51, including 24 in California and 27 in Arizona. Their habitat is the mostly coastal mountain ranges from Canada to Mexico.

The bird, a large scavenger related to the vulture, was first put on the endangered species list in 1967. Their numbers dropped to an all-time low in 1982, when there were only 22 in existence.

The condors were taken out of the wild, and the release program began in 1992. Now there are a total of 160 in the wild and in captivity.

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