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Rancher, dairy farmer aid efforts to save condors


Published: Dec. 16, 2011

WHAT DO a cattle rancher, a dairy farmer and an environmental group have in common?

They all want to see the California condor return in large numbers to the skies above the Central Coast.

On a lonely, grassy ridge within the boundaries of the 7,000-acre El Sur Ranch, the carcasses of cattle are regularly fed to condors, which subsist entirely on carrion. While the ranch’s owner, James Hill, has sought no credit for his efforts, executive director Kelly Sorenson of the Ventana Wildlife Society — which is spearheading condor recovery efforts — told The Pine Cone this week that he considers the ranch owner an unsung hero.

“He’s real humble, but he deserves some credit,” Sorenson said. “He goes out of his way to benefit the condors. He’s always been very supportive of what we do.”

Sorenson approached Hill – heir to a 19th century railroad fortune and one of Monterey County’s biggest landowners – about a decade ago and received permission to use a ranch road to access an adjacent property where the VWS delivered carcasses to condors. Hill not only offered access across his land, but later he began to bring cattle carcasses to a nearby site on his property and set up his own condor feeding zone.

“Over the last six or seven years, we’ve delivered 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of carcasses,” explained Hill, who recently delivered a 1,200-pound cow that died after it was caught in a ravine. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

In addition to donating food for condors, Hill is also a big advocate for the use of copper bullets to protect his livestock from predators, which earned him additional praise from Sorenson. Poisoning from lead bullets — along with poaching and habitat destruction — are blamed for causing the condor’s near-extinction by the late 20th century. At Hill’s insistence, El Sur Ranch now exclusively uses copper bullets.

Unlike the low-profile Hill, Monterey County supervisor Lou Calcagno spends much of his time in public tending to the affairs of government. But like the Big Sur cattle rancher, Calcagno has very quietly been making a big difference for condors.

While Sorenson said the VWS hopes one day soon to ween condors off the cattle carcasses, he said for now, they are essential to the bird’s recovery. Aside from Hill’s efforts, the VWS has received cattle carcasses from a variety of ranches and dairies. While all have aided the VWS’s efforts, Sorenson said none have been a bigger help than Moonglow Dairy of Moss Landing, which is owned by Calcagno and his wife, Carol.

“He’s never once asked for any credit for what he does, but he’s also been very supportive of us,” Sorenson offered.

Two decades ago, environmental groups often found themselves on the opposite side of political battles with the cattle and dairy industries. But today, the lines have blurred, and the two sides are often finding common ground.

Just as the Big Sur Land Trust works with local ranchers to preserve open space, cattle and dairy farms are lending a hand to conservation efforts. “Both of these guys deserve some conservation kudos,” Sorenson added.

Fifteen years ago, the VWS launched its ambitious condor reintroduction project on the Central Coast. Today, 27 condors live along the Big Sur Coast, while another 30 birds reside in the vicinity of Pinnacles National Monument. Sorenson said the VWS is preparing to soon release three more condors from a ridge above Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. When the project started, the group hoped to one day establish a Central Coast population of 75 birds.