NEWS-PRESS SPECIAL REPORT: Just 30 years ago, the odds were stacked against the California condor
It’s a sunny late Wednesday morning, and if you look to your left and right, you might feel like you’ve lost touch with civilization.
There’s a feeling of serenity, a peacefulness that only nature can bring. Faint sounds of beautiful black horses can be heard if you listen intently, calming feeding on rolling hills of plentiful green grass. You turn in the opposite direction, and see the faint signs of snow-topped mountains, a surprising sight at the end of June.
This is nature as it is intended to be — and a safe haven for one of the most endangered species in the world, the California condor.
The idea that there are any California condors in the wild is something that was thought to be nearly impossible just 30 years ago, when the population had dwindled to less than two dozen.
The species needed a miracle, an intervention of sorts.
And one occurred — a controversial one. Humans stepped in, and brought them into captivity, much to the chagrin of many.
Some claimed that the species would find a way to survive on its own, some looked at it as natural selection — but a group of scientists weren’t willing to leave it to chance, or give up hope.
And hope is winning.
After more than three decades of nurturing the population at zoos up and down the California coast, the condor population is growing significantly — back in the wild.
As of December 2018, there are 488 California condors, with 312 free-flying, including 188 in California, 88 in Arizona/Northern Utah and 36 in Baja.
And on this splendid summer day at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, the picture of how human care has aided in the California condor thriving once again was on full display.
On this Wednesday, the stench of a donated and mostly-eaten stillborn calf is smelled from a quarter-mile away. It’s not a pleasant odor for a human, but it’s a tool to help provide California condors with critical care.
About a half-mile away from a house that features a plethora of biologists and handful of interns, there is a massive cage with a trap door — intended to capture wild California condors. On this day, three are waiting for biologists to examine. The cage has plenty of room for the condors, who have up to 9-and-a-half foot wingspans, to move around and interact with one another, although the ability to truly glide is limited.
On top of the cage an additional four to five condors observe the action, frequently taking off for a little jaunt around the mountains, only to glide back to the area, clearly not afraid of the more than a dozen humans, including a group from the Audubon Society and Santa Barbara Zoo board members Crystal Wyatt and Michael Hurst, both of whom cradled a condor as the birds received care.
As a rule, nesting condors do not stay in the cages for longer than 48 hours, while others that need to be observed longer due to health concerns can be housed up to six days.
Biologists use this time predominantly to check for lead poisoning, one of the leading killers of California condors, thought to be one of the main culprits of the initial downfall of the species’ population.
According to Estelle Sandhaus, the Santa Barbara Zoo’s director of Conservation & Science, the condors are instinctively curious and are attracted to items such as tin roofs and bullets, which can have high volumes of lead.
Curiosity isn’t something that can be tamed, so these annual checkups provide a safeguard to make sure the population doesn’t revert backward in size and health.
The day before this jaunt, one of the condors proved to be violently ill, unable to swallow and digest — with the remnants, mostly stomach-turning smell, still obvious more than 24 hours later.
The condor was rushed to the Los Angeles Zoo, with the biologists observing signs of lead poisoning, although official diagnosis is still being determined. In L.A., the condor was housed with another, as the species inherently likes to pair.
Ms. Sandhaus says the Santa Barbara Zoo has taken the mentality that it must work with other local organizations to make sure that not only is the health of the condors paramount, but also that organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a multitude of hunting agencies are heard to make sure that the best compromise can be found.
In April the U.S. Forest Service extended a temporary ban on unregulated target shooting in the Los Padres National Forest, with the agreement effectively ending what started out as an August 2018 lawsuit filed by Los Padres ForestWatch, a Santa Barbara-based conservation group.
The new agreement allows the Forest Service to conduct a study of Los Padres, working alongside the USFWS and other federal agencies to reduce the impact of target shooting on not only the California condor, but also Kern mallow, California red-legged frog and southern mountain buckwheat.
Legal hunting with a license is not affected by the ban.
According to research released by the Journal of Wildlife Diseases in 2015, “lead poisoning from ingestion of spent lead ammunition is one of the greatest threats to the recovery of California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) in the wild. Trash ingestion by condors is well documented, yet the extent that trash presents a lead exposure risk is unknown. We evaluated 1,413 trash items collected from condor nest areas and nestlings in the Transverse Range of Ventura County, California, US, from 2002 to 2008, for their potential as a lead exposure risk to condors. We visually identified 71 items suspected to contain sufficient lead to be of toxicologic concern.”
Ms. Sandhaus was quick to point out that the simple act of hunting — targeted or not — is not the primary culprit of lead poisoning.
“Exposure to lead ammunition via ingestion of spent ammunition fragments embedded in carcasses is the primary risk factor for lead poisoning in California condors, but our results also suggest that ingestion of lead ammunition-related trash may also be an important, albeit much less frequent, source of lead exposure,” Ms. Sandhaus said.
“Thus, our findings suggest that trash ingestion is not a significant contributor to the epidemic lead poisoning rates observed in California condors, but ingestion of ammunition-related trash could be of concern and efforts to minimize a condor’s exposure to ammunition-related trash are warranted.”
Conservationists have also pointed to power lines, microtrash and habitat loss as additional threats, which have necessitated the continued human intervention, even if just for these annual check-ups.
But, it’s not a perfect science, as there are condors that were initially caught when the program began, but have not returned since — although the biologists know that they are alive and well through the use of advanced technology, including GPS tracking.
The trek to observe California condors in their natural habitat started nearly a month earlier with a visit to Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, an area still visibly affected by the Thomas Fire of 2017-18.
After what felt like an endless and windy ride through a dense fog on the edge of a cliff, you are welcomed into valleys of deep greenery, with nary a human influence in sight outside of oft-used dirt roads.
As you descend into the mountain’s valleys, another house built to help biologists observe the California condor features a surprising amount of technology — stretching the limits of what should be possible in the middle of a remote refuge, Ms. Sandhaus boasted.
Here, Joseph Brandt, the supervisory wildlife biologist for the USFWS California Condor Recovery Program at Hopper Mountain, is able to pull up flight patterns for hundreds of condors, allowing him to not only to track the birds in near real-time, but also give the biologists the ability to better study habits for nesting, feeding or pairing.
In addition, the recovery program has installed strategic cameras around both refuges, initially focused on just monitoring nests with either eggs or recently hatched condors.
Mr. Brandt explained that utilizing video technology allowed biologists to go into nests less often for welfare checks — previously going into them four to five times — at 1, 2, 3 and 4 months old, with the latter the timing of tagging the chick.
Now with the nest cameras in place, biologists usually do not enter until the four-month stage, leaving checkups to the chick’s parents, with the father spending far more time with the chick than the mother.
“It’s giving us an understanding on how nests do on their own,” Mr. Brandt said.
It also allows interns to observe behaviors, after the fact, at 16 times the speed, creating more efficiencies in the care of condors.
“You can watch three days of footage in four hours, and still be able to record behavioral data we are interested in,” Mr. Brandt explained.
The technology has also allowed the recovery program to educate the general public with a live cam — brought to the public via a partnership between the USFWS, Santa Barbara Zoo, The Cornell Lab and the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology — that focuses on nests at various points around Hopper Mountain.
With hundreds of thousands of views on the live stream, people are getting a glimpse of the California condor’s unique personalities, as well as how cute they are as chicks. In total, if you added the amount of time that people have watched the live stream, you would have more than 36 years of time.
“It’s a cool vehicle to introduce both condors and the recovery effort to a broader audience,” Mr. Brandt said.
While 488 California condors is an impressive number considering where the process started, the species recovery is all about the long game.
According to Mr. Brandt, the current rate of growth in the wild is stagnant, with chicks being produced in the wild offsetting the deaths in the wild — pointing to the continued efforts of breeding in captivity as a key to potential further growth.
“Any one that we release from captivity is growing the population, that’s where we are at in terms of condor recovery,” Mr. Brandt said. “We will continue to monitor reproduction and mortality, to make sure we maintain that balance, but we want to see that balance occurring when the population is much, much larger.”
Currently in Southern California, there are four chicks in nests, while the entire recovery program had 15 in 2018 and 10 in 2017.
Legislation passed in California that protects the California condor has created new awareness on the role of a hunter in the cycle of growth.
Other states, such as Arizona, have not passed similar legislation, relying on education instead.
“Both places require a lot of education and outreach in the important role that hunters play for condors, providing them a food source and how important it is that the food source be clean (with no lead),” Mr. Brandt said.
Both Mr. Brandt and Ms. Sandhaus agree that eliminating antagonistic relationships is the key to finding common goals — and including groups such as hunters or the Department of Fish and Wildlife is key to collaboration.
And in that effort, it will also work toward the ultimate goal of the entire population being free-flying — something that might be a ways off, but no longer out of the realm of possibility. With three distinct populations — the California coast, Arizona/Northern Utah and captivity — there is a scenario where the latter might not be needed.
“Ultimately, that is what we would hope for,” said Ms. Sandhaus, who devotes up to 85 percent of her time at the zoo to condor projects, working alongside zoo interns, biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and a handful of Great Basin Institute interns.
“Until the major threats are ameliorated more and until the population numbers and their ranges expand, a captive population provides a measure of safety in the face of any potential future catastrophic decline.”
So, no, the California condor isn’t out of the woods.
But the fact that they are once again roaming those serene woods is a miracle answered.