Conservation Column: California Condor Recovery Update

Rowdy teenagers were getting into some trouble and people were concerned about their ability to comfortably fit into a complex society. The solution: a mentorship program where an experienced adult was able to keep the rambunctious youngsters in line and engage their interest. This mentor program has been working successfully for years as part of the California Condor recovery effort, where conservationists and scientists work hard to save the condor from extinction and reintroduce the birds into the wild. In 1987, only 22 individuals were found in the wild and shortly thereafter were taken into captivity. Thanks to a comprehensive recovery program with its focus on careful breeding, mentorship and training programs, there are now over 400 condors with just over half of them living in the wild. 

It is amazing to see these birds soaring in their natural habitat. California Condors have a 9-10 foot wingspan and may soar up to 150 miles per day. These scavengers use their keen eyesight to search for carrion and play an important “clean-up” role in the environment. They are clever birds that live and eat in social groups, are strongly bonded, and often mate for life. Their slow reproductive output is one of the challenges to recovering these birds. While they may live for 50-60 years, they don’t begin reproducing until they are 6-7 years old. They lay only one egg at a time and do not breed every year. Chicks learn to fly when they are about 6 months old, but will stay with their devoted parents for many more months. 

The biggest threat to California Condors in the wild is ingesting lead shot or bullet fragments in the animal carcasses or hunter-discarded gut piles on which they feed. Bald and Golden Eagles and other raptors poisoned by lead are brought into care centers throughout the area and often die an agonizing death. In addition to the threat to scavengers, studies have shown that even meat cleaned by hunters before cooking still contains lead. We have banned lead in paint and gasoline to protect our families, and it is now time to ban its use in ammunition. California has instituted a step-wise phasing out of lead ammunition, which goes fully into effect in 2019. One drawback for hunters is that non-lead ammunition is more expensive. Given the market for ammunition in California, the price will come down. The stabilization of price, the demonstrated accuracy of non-lead shot, the health benefits to people, and the very lives of magnificent animals like California Condors and Bald Eagles are well worth the regulation. Note that hunting privileges will not be restricted in any way; there would simply be a requirement to use non-toxic shot. In good news, the outgoing director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued a directive in January that non-toxic ammunition and tackle be used on Service lands. Whether this directive will hold under the new administration is uncertain. 

Many hunters who use lead shot are not aware of the threats to people and wildlife. Education will help, and this in turn could help the effort to expand the range of the California Condor, which historically flew throughout the West. It is exciting to know that they may be back in Oregon within the next two years. Several groups, including the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Yurok tribe are proposing to expand the project by releasing birds into Redwood National Park in Northern California, where they have not been seen in 100 years. California Condors are considered sacred by Yurok people. There is also a plan by the Nez Perce to investigate potential release around Hell’s Canyon in northeast Oregon.

A public scoping period about the project is in progress. Right now public agencies seem to be leaning toward Alternative 1, which would classify the birds released in Redwood National Park as an “experimental population” removing several protections that would be afforded to them under the Endangered Species Act. We endorse Alternative 2, which gives them full protection under the ESA. The proposals will be refined and a draft released for public comment this summer. Although the first public comment period closed at the end of January, you can still contact officials to voice your support for the reintroduction of condors and request appropriate steps to protect them from lead poisoning. You can also help by spreading the word and educating hunters and others about the problems with lead ammunition. It may take a while for official progress but, in the meantime, voluntary cooperation from an informed public will go a long way toward protecting the condors and other marvelous birds of prey.

An on-line letter in support of the project can be found here: action.biologicaldiversity.org/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=17557

Or contact David M. Roemer, Deputy Superintendent, Redwood National Park, 707.465.7700

OPB coverage of the issue: opb.org/news/article/condor-reintroduction-in-the-northwest-will-put-the-scavengers-in-leads-way/

Official info on the proposal: parkplanning.nps.gov/documentsList.cfm?projectID=66364