Where are the chicks? - Page 2

A half dozen California quail -- all males -- are all that remain in the once-teeming Presidio. What does the plight of the official state bird say about wildlife management in San Francisco?
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Now I'm more likely to find a vagrant bird from the East Coast than a wrentit or a screech owl in the Presidio."

Since the former US Army base was decommissioned and opened to the public, the wrentit and screech owl have disappeared, and the quail are flying the coop too, despite the protective national-park status of the city's largest natural area.

"Sometimes I think about the irony of it," says Dominik Mosur, a former biological monitor for the Presidio Trust who still birds in the national park once or twice a week. "The Presidio Trust was founded in 1998, at the same time habitat restoration for the quail really started happening. The more people got involved in somewhat of a misguided manner, the less successful it's become."

Having a species of animal disappear from a national park is very unusual, according to Peter Dratch, who oversees the Endangered Species Program for the National Park Service. "It's a rare event for a species in a national park to become locally extirpated," he says. Just three national parks have lost an animal out of the thousand endangered and threatened species he tracks.

Mosur is concerned that economic interests are trumping ecological needs in the Presidio. "I'm not saying that ecologists who work for the trust want to see the quail extinct," Mosur says. "But I think their bosses wouldn't mind. Preserving nature and making money are really conflicting things. You can't make any money off of an open lot of sagebrush with some quail in it, but you can make quite a bit of money converting Letterman hospital into a lot of apartments."

And making money is the bottom line for this national park. The Presidio, unlike any other national park in the country, is forced to fully fund itself, according to a mandate proposed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi in the mid-'90s. Guardian investigations and editorials over the years have raised questions about the viability of this arrangement. The cash cow is supposed to be the abundance of housing and development opportunities made possible by the abandoned army barracks and buildings, which means this national park is in the business of real estate, not natural resources.

While an annual $20 million federal allocation has been meted to the park during its teething stages, the Presidio Trust is tasked with weaning itself off that funding by 2013. Halfway through the 15-year deadline, the 2006 annual report for the trust shows that revenue is up just 4.5 percent while overhead costs have jumped 22 percent from last year's numbers.

So making money is more important than ever. The doubtful are invited to trawl the Presidio's Web site, where it's easy to find information about housing rentals and development opportunities, the new restaurants that have opened, and the free coffee now available at transit hubs, but only a deep search will reveal anything about birds, trees, and flowers. A click on the "Nature in the City" link scores you a picture of the very common and abundant great horned owl. If you want to "read more," you get a blurb about mushrooms. The "Save the Quail" link, which was up as recently as this fall, has disappeared, just like the bird itself.

At press time, spokespeople for the Presidio Trust had not answered our questions about quail habitats or future restoration plans, despite repeated inquiries.

To be fair, the decimation of local quail is a phenomenon not exclusive to the Presidio. The population in Golden Gate Park has also dropped to a dangerous low. Annual citywide "Christmas Bird Counts," conducted by the Golden Gate Audubon Society, show more than 100 quail 10 years ago but as few as 40 just 5 years ago. Last year there were 27.