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The great California condor comeback

After decades of costly ups and downs, the endangered species is finally poised to succeed

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FEATHERED FRIENDS :  Condors are captured for semiannual checkups, then released. - PHOTO BY PAUL WELLMAN
  • PHOTO BY PAUL WELLMAN
  • FEATHERED FRIENDS : Condors are captured for semiannual checkups, then released.
“Oh! There’s a condor flying!” shouts Michael Woodbridge, spokesman for the Hopper Mountain wildlife refuge, which is where we’ve been sitting on a poison oak-covered cliff for nearly an hour, focused on the rocky cave across the canyon that hides a California condor nest. “That’s the dad. He’s coming to check us out.”

Seconds later, the massive black bird does just that, rotating his reddish-orange face on a fluffy collar of neck feathers to peer our way. With a stark white underbelly and unmistakable glider-like flying style, I realize that—despite some false alarms in my years of exploring the Los Padres National Forest—this is my first time ever seeing a California condor on the wing in the wild. When the mother bird suddenly emerges from the nest to join her partner in flight, soaring together in a graceful waltz across a dance floor of thermals, I finally start to comprehend the magnetic attraction of this severely endangered scavenger, how its nine-foot wingspan inspired so many Chumash legends, and why so many millions of dollars and countless man-hours have been spent to save it.

The breathtaking aerial display, however, only momentarily makes me forget the tremendous challenges that condors still face more than 30 years after the campaign to rescue them from near-extinction was launched. Even though the species, which bottomed out at 22 total birds in 1987, has rebounded to more than 360 birds today, the popular mindset remains divided on the revival’s true trajectory. Depending on your point of view, the California condor recovery program exists as either one of the brightest imaginable triumphs of an endangered species over all-but-certain extinction, or the most misguided and expensive boondoggle in American history, requiring more than $5 million—or roughly $13,000 per bird—in annual costs. Condor optimists say progress is steady and certain, but critics say that the bird is just one of many species that’s outlived its time on Earth.

For years, I found myself somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. But after spending time with experts in condor country and listening to all sides about the ups and downs of the program, I’m happy to say that there is today more hope for California condor recovery than ever before. More wild-born chicks are fledging, fewer birds are dying from lead poisoning, and young birds are learning from old birds where to forage for dead flesh. As the experts begin to better understand the curious ways of the condor and rethink past assumptions, the goal of three distinct populations—one captive, one wild in California, and one wild in Arizona, each with 150 birds and at least 15 breeding pairs—actually seems attainable by the anticipated 2015 deadline. The condor is not in the clear yet: lead poisoning persists, why parents feed their chicks microtrash remains a mystery, and it’s unknown whether the wildlife remaining can produce sufficient carrion. On top of that, the politics of protection, which continue to alienate factions of the hunting community, have not led to the best long-term legislation. But for the first time in decades, almost everyone seems optimistic.

“We’ve certainly come a long way since the last wild bird was taken in,” said Jan Hamber, who’s been working with condors since January 1976 and runs the world’s most comprehensive condor database at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. “All the problems for the condors are human-related. … So ultimately, it rests on us. The birds themselves seem to do just fine.”

The Culture Cure

As a boy, Jesse Grantham would spend hours watching a nest full of robins outside his bedroom window. So it’s no wonder that Grantham finds himself working out of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Ventura office as the coordinator of the California Condor Recovery Program, which he returned to in 2004 after about 20 years of work for the Audubon Society in other parts of the country.

Grantham joined the program in 1979, when it was launched as a two-year study of how many condors existed and why their numbers were dwindling. Using binoculars and a camera, Grantham and his colleagues concluded that only 22 birds remained in the wild, making the species—which doesn’t start breeding until age six and then only produces about one egg every two years—as endangered as endangered gets. That triggered a very public debate about whether salvation-by-captivity was possible or whether the species should just go extinct with dignity.

No one, however, could prove why condors were dying in the wild. “Food was not a problem and they were reproducing,” recalled Grantham. But in 1984 Grantham and his mentor Noel Snyder found a dead condor in the Sierras with a lead bullet in its crop (the sack of skin that hangs below the beak). “There it is,” uttered Snyder, who knew that the wild lands of condor country are also human hunting grounds for deer, bear, pigs, and other game. When hunters take home their killed meats, they often leave behind lead-contaminated gut piles, an easy feast for condors. But even small amounts of ingested lead can shut down their digestive systems, causing severe disability and often death. A campaign against lead ammunition culminated nearly a quarter-century later in October 2007 when the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act was signed into law banning hunters from using lead ammo throughout the bird’s California range.

Shortly after making the lead bullet discovery, Grantham left the condor project but the captivity program continued. Formerly wild condors began laying their first captive eggs in 1988 and a reintroduction program was developed in the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest. But in 1992, when the first California condors bred in captivity were released, they hit a “bumpy road,” according to Grantham. The young birds, who had been raised by condor puppets, tended to interact with humans, forage in dumpsters, and engage in otherwise self-destructive behavior.

Grantham kept watching from afar, believing the condor to be the smartest animal he’d ever worked with. “It’s a person trapped in the body of a bird,” he explained. “It just doesn’t have the opposable thumb.” Unfortunately, it was exactly those humanoid traits—a long learning curve, extremely social behavior, reliance on culture, etc.—that the program was ignoring. “Learned behavior and the condor, nobody knew how important it was,” said Grantham.

That’s all changed since Grantham returned to the condor program in 2004, thanks largely to the efforts of two individuals: the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Joseph Brandt, a former volunteer with the Big Sur condors who became the Southern California program’s field supervisor; and the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Estelle Sandhaus, a Georgia Tech Ph.D. student who changed her dissertation’s focus from great pandas to the condor. In 2007, the duo started to monitor eggs, chicks, and their parents with a nest-guarding program that requires the year-round efforts of students, volunteers, and paid professionals to monitor the Southern California nests, of which there were four in 2007, five in 2008, and five more in 2009.

Based on that steady, intimate contact, Brandt and Sandhaus have made two critical breakthroughs: one, they disproved the long-held theory that any human contact would “spoil” wild condors, clearing the way for the hands-on interactions that enable more wild chicks to survive; and two, they’ve shown that condor culture, such as when older birds teach younger birds where to find food or how to properly act in the wild, is critical to the species’ survival.

“There was no culture out there when they were first released,” Sandhaus explained one morning on the way to the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex where most of the Southern California nests are located. “There are still some birds in captivity that have so much knowledge in their heads,” she said, explaining that such locked-up memories are the keys to condor success.

Condors are essentially copycat foragers—when one bird finds food and disappears from the sky, the others follow—and their society revolves around feeding time, when young birds learn about hierarchy and proper behavior. Nearly 18 years after the first captive-bred condor was released into the wild, enough time has passed for them to rediscover their old foraging grounds and transmit that information to the next generation. The condor recovery team also attracts condors to new territories by sporadic supplemental feedings as well. “They’re very gregarious in that sense,” explained Michael Woodbridge, the Fish & Wildlife spokesman who spends most of his time on the condor project. “By affecting what a few birds do, you can affect what the rest of the birds do.”

“They act like the original wild condors—they’re doing the exact same things that they were doing in the 1980s,” explained Grantham.

EAGLE EYE :  U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Michael Woodbridge peers across a canyon toward a condor nest with volunteers from the nest-guarding program. - PHOTO BY PAUL WELLMAN
  • PHOTO BY PAUL WELLMAN
  • EAGLE EYE : U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Michael Woodbridge peers across a canyon toward a condor nest with volunteers from the nest-guarding program.
Up on Bitter Creek

It’s a sunny summer day at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, a 14,000-acre collection of rolling hills and golden grasslands in southwestern Kern County that offers views of both the San Joaquin Valley and Mt. Pinos. About 20 people are speaking in low voices beneath a blue tarp that’s attached to a sprawling flight pen, the temporary home for a couple dozen trapped condors about to get their semiannual checkups. The air reeks of death, as the condors’ carcass cravings tend to linger on their bodies, but the day is all about saving lives.

In order for the paid workers and volunteers—representatives from zoos, federal and state agencies, and nonprofit institutes—to process each condor safely, a curious contest begins between bird and humans that involves oversized butterfly nets, waving yellow brooms, and plenty of persistence. Once out of the pen, a condor is subjected to a 15-minute barrage of tests conducted by as many as five people simultaneously—feathers, toes, and other body parts examined; West Nile Virus vaccine administered if needed; transmitters and tags reattached; blood samples taken for onsite lead poisoning analysis.

In charge is the dreadlocked Joseph Brandt, who calls for new towels like a surgeon requesting a scalpel and barks out handling tips to newbies. If the condor passes the lead test and appears healthy, it’s weighed and freed, usually flapping just once or twice before rising like an elevator into the thermals above the Bitter Creek headwall.

Brandt is focusing in on the most critical threats to the condor’s continued existence. The most obvious question is whether there’s enough food to support a wild population, as modern development and agriculture has displaced the large herds of roaming ungulates that historically provided a steady supply of rotting flesh. But in the last six months, the reintroduced herds of tule elk and pronghorn antelope on the Carrizo Plain and Wind Wolves Preserve started thriving, not to mention the condors’ steady supply of meat from both the many cattle ranches and other large mammals that die naturally in the forest.

Future human development in the region does remain a threat, and condor supporters are steadfastly watching the proposed creation of two new large communities south of Bakersfield on Tejon Ranch, which has become a popular condor foraging spot. But as the bird expands its range, it is also making researchers reconsider what should be recognized as condor habitat. “Most of us think of habitat as plants and trees, but here’s a bird that’s totally dependent on the air for survival,” explained program coordinator Grantham. “Are there areas we don’t even realize are being lost because the birds were dependent upon them seasonally?” While he has no idea what sort of protective measures might result, Grantham is currently consulting with weather specialists to determine if and how seasonal air flow could be incorporated into the condor recovery program.

More immediately perplexing to Brandt, however, is the mystery of microtrash, the nickel- to quarter-sized pieces of glass, metal, plastic, and ceramic that almost all parent condors try to feed their young. Until the start of the nest-guarding program, microtrash was responsible for numerous wild chick deaths; from 2001 to 2006, for instance, only one of 17 wild-hatched Southern California condors was able to fledge, with microtrash either directly responsible or contributing to the demise of the other 16. Today, if a chick is found with microtrash in its crop, the nest entry team will try to “milk” it out of its esophagus. If that’s not successful, then the chick is taken by helicopter to the Los Angeles Zoo on a round-trip mission to have the trash surgically removed and the chick returned within 23 hours.

But microtrash really only impacts the young condors, so lead still rules as the number one problem for condors of all ages. During both the Hopper Mountain nest entries and the Bitter Creek checkups, the condors are tested for lead, and those with elevated levels are either treated onsite with an injection that cleans the bloodstream or, if it surpasses TK micrograms per deciliter, they’re whisked away to the Los Angeles Zoo for extended treatment. (That emergency procedure costs about $10,000, but the tab is mostly picked up by the zoo.)

Although the ban on lead hunting ammo in California only went into effect two years ago, it’s already delivering. “The preliminary good news is that, here in Southern California, so far the lead levels have been very low,” said Woodbridge in December, referring to data the Brandt’s teams submitted for the end of 2009 checkup. “We might be on the verge of a real success that we can tout if this trend continues.” Unfortunately, Woodbridge also confirmed that two birds in the Central California region recently died from lead poisoning, so the struggle continues.

Hunters lament

 Bill Jopson and Becky Davis who own and operate Custom Cartridge, an ammunition and gun store in Santa Barbara County, share views on the condor recovery program that resonate not just with their hunting clients, but with many people who believe the species’ era is over.

“It’s nearly extinct, and the reason for that is not lead—it’s the loss of habitat which supported herds of wild animals,” said Jopson one afternoon last year. “We don’t have the big carrion anymore.” Davis, who calls herself a “dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist,” believes that restricting hunting ammo won’t save the condors because there are other sources of lead in their environment, particularly the small animals that landowners kill with .22-caliber bullets, which have no non-lead alternatives.

HALE :  Even while on the ground, condors look majestic. - PHOTO BY PAUL WELLMAN
  • PHOTO BY PAUL WELLMAN
  • HALE : Even while on the ground, condors look majestic.
Despite their complaints, however, Custom Cartridge experienced a boom in business with the lead ban, as they’ve been making alternative ammo for 20 years and reign as the condor region’s largest non-lead ammo supplier. That doesn’t mean their clients are overjoyed, however, because non-lead ammo is still much more expensive and in short supply. Craig Stowers, the DFG’s deer-hunting coordinator, believes that “lead’s time has come and gone.” Stowers said the ban was premature. There weren’t yet suitable substitutes available and the political process behind the act’s passage lacked professional integrity. “The department had no relevance in the debate once the legislature got involved,” said Stowers, “but we’re vested by the legislature with the authority to manage wildlife.”

When Stowers first heard about lead ammo harming condors, he believed it was a logical “working theory” and assumed it would be properly tested. But he said that the legislation effectively ended the debate, so studies about other possible sources of lead in condor country—from wheel weights and industrial paint to ammo used in the killing of nuisance animals such as coyotes and squirrels—were not properly examined. “There’s been a bunch of time, a bunch of money, and a bunch of emotion wasted, and the condor will still continue to get lead poisoning because we haven’t figured out where they’re getting it,” said Stowers.

Future Flights of the Condor

About 20 years ago, few believed the condor would escape extinction, and almost no one could anticipate the rebound it’s already made. Today, in addition to the wild condor flocks in Central and Southern California, Arizona, and Baja California, the Yurok Tribe is considering a reintroduction program in Northern California and a graduate student is determining whether a flock would thrive in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. In 2009 alone, two chicks successfully fledged in Southern California, three made it in Central California, and two are flying in Arizona. But will the bird ever survive without the intervention of humans, or will it become, in the parlance of wildlife biology, a “conservation-dependent” species? To people like Grantham, the answer doesn’t entirely matter—it’s the quest that counts. “At which point do you say, ‘This species goes and this species stays’?” he asked. “Culturally, I think we’re at a point where people are not willing to let any of these things go.”

Pointing to the outline of condor country on a map of the West Coast in his Ventura office, Grantham said with a smile, “It’s the size of a postage stamp, and one of the rarest birds in the world is right there.”

Matt Kettmann is Senior Editor of the Santa Barbara Independent, in which a version of this story appeared. Send comments via the editor of  New Times at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

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