BY PAUL ROGERS
They have been released over Big Sur, the Grand Canyon and the Santa Barbara hills.
But ambitious plans announced two years ago by the federal government and private biologists to release 20 to 30 California condors over Silicon Valley may not happen.
Instead, two dozen of the birds -- bred in captivity as the most endangered of America's endangered species -- may be heading to Pinnacles National Monument, 30 miles south of Hollister in rural San Benito County.
Worried that the condors might be chopped to bits from the whirling wind energy turbines at Altamont Pass in Alameda County, a team of condor experts has recommended to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it drop plans to release the birds in the Diablo Range east of Morgan Hill and Gilroy.
``Their opinion holds a lot of weight,'' said Jim Davis, executive director of the Ventana Wilderness Society, a non-profit group that has helped coordinate releases of condors and bald eagles around Big Sur. ``It's safe to say that wind farms present a risk. This is an endangered species that we're not willing to take risks with.''
The turbines are only 30 miles northeast of Mount Hamilton, and condors have been known to fly up to 150 miles a day. There are more than 5,400 wind turbines in the hills around Altamont Pass.
Biologists have long expressed concern at the number of birds killed by the spinning blades. From 1992 through January 1998, for example, 1,025 birds were killed by the windmills. That includes 149 golden eagles, which are protected by state and federal laws.
Instead of taking that risk with condors, the team recommended that the Gabilan Range, which runs along the San Benito-Monterey County line, would be safer. If all goes well, the first five to eight birds could be released as soon as next summer.
``In one respect, it's a disappointment for us,'' said Henry Coletto, Santa Clara County game warden. ``But we have to look at what's best for the animal.''
The most promising release site, according to the siting team, appears to be Pinnacles National Monument, a scenic landscape of steep trails and craggy rock first set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.
The team visited the Diablo and Gabilan ranges Jan. 3-5. The group is made up of Bruce Palmer, head of the condor program for the Fish and Wildlife Service; Mike Wallace of the San Diego Wild Animal Park; and Bill Heinrich of the Peregrine Fund, an Idaho raptor group.
The recommendation is not final, but it carries significant influence.
The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to hold hearings next month in San Jose, Gilroy, San Benito County and Soledad. Times and locations have not yet been announced.
By the end of the year, the service will settle on a final choice, said Davis. If everything goes well, eight birds a year could be released over three or four years, he said.
As with other releases, the condors would come from breeding programs in Southern California. The birds will be fitted with radio transmitters and ID tags.
Officials at Pinnacles, which spans 24,000 acres, said they were thrilled.
``We think it's a great opportunity,'' said Steve Shackelton, superintendent at Pinnacles. ``The condor is such a signature endangered species. It's a great link to our efforts to protect this landscape.''
Shackelton said he has begun to discuss the issue with local ranchers. Davis said that condors would not affect ranchers' livelihood because the birds eat only dead animals. In fact, he said, dairy farmers in Monterey County for years have donated dead calves to feed young condors.
Larry Whalon, chief of resources at Pinnacles, said that an area on Chalone Peak, among the most remote sections of Pinnacles, might be best suited. He said that rangers there would probably limit public access but might construct a viewing platform.
California condors once flew from British Columbia to Mexico. Prehistoric-looking cousins of the turkey vulture, they began a precipitous decline during the Gold Rush and reached a low point in the mid-1980s, when their population fell to 22.
Condors died from poisoning after eating dead coyotes and other animals that had been filled with lead shot or cyanide by ranchers. They also fell prey to shooting; at the beginning of the 20th century, museums paid $1,000 or more to display dead condors and their eggs.
In a desperation strategy, federal biologists captured all remaining wild condors in 1987 and began breeding them in zoos. They started to release offspring in 1992. Today there are about 160 condors in America. Of those, 50 are in the wild: 26 in northern Arizona and 24 in California.
In a related development, the Ventana Wilderness Society plans to release five more condors, adding to 14 already flying over Big Sur, on April 5. The group has invited new Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who helped create the first release program in the 1980s while with the Reagan administration.
To learn more, go to the Ventana Wilderness Society's Web site (www.ventanaws.org), call the group at (831) 455-9514 or check the Fish and Wildlife Service Web site (www.fws.gov).