California Condor: Back from the Brink?

Why the Critically Endangered Bird Still Needs Our Help

By Kiki Serantes

ABOVE: A California Condor, one of the small, critically endangered population at Zion National Park. Photo: Madison Roberts

If you’re lucky enough to spot a rare California Condor, you might just feel as if you’ve been transported back to a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth. With an almost 10 foot wingspan, spotting one of these magnificent, endangered scavengers seems like it would be a simple enough task, but your chances of doing so—at least at Zion—dropped significantly this summer when one of the region’s approximately 80 condors died of lead poisoning.

With just over 430 condors left in the world, and 80 of those in the Arizona-Utah area according to December 2015 data, this loss is a reminder that the condor’s uphill battle toward survival is far from over. Today, despite the availability of new and improved replacement technologies, the condor’s greatest foe is entirely manmade: lead ammunition.

“Ever since humans made it onto this continent and started taking out the mega fauna, the condors were hurting,” Zion’s Wildlife Program Manager Cassie Waters said.

I will never forget the sheer shock of my first condor-sighting here at Zion National Park. My field group and I were among the lucky few able to spot the enormous creature in flight off of the Kolob Terrace Road. I remember staring in awe as my supervisor pointed the condor out, which had a wingspan as wide as an average building story is tall. Against the jagged cliffs of Zion, I had to check with my senses to make sure I wasn’t in the ‘Land Before Time.’ As I realized Little Foot was not about to make an appearance, my supervisor went on to denote how rare it is to see this endangered species—let alone, see it in flight.

A California Condor takes flight at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Kim Valverde/USFWS

The condors’ range, which traditionally extended from Canada to Mexico, was first drastically reduced by the Pleistocene extinction that killed the majority of the large bird’s prey. When the first Western settlers stepped foot on North American soil, the range was confined to the Pacific Southwest region, but condors were still relatively thriving. That is, until shooting, egg collecting, poisoning by cyanide traps set for coyotes, power line collisions, general habitat degradation, and lead poisoning devastated the species everywhere outside of California.

By 1982, there were only 22 condors left in the world, despite it being placed on the Endangered Species list 15 years earlier in 1967.

This all led to one of the United States’ most intensive wildlife recovery programs to date. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spearheaded a captive breeding program in 1983, capturing the remaining wild condors in hopes that supervised breeding may bring the species back from the brink. The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey later joined Fish and Wildlife Service in opening additional breeding facilities and are, today, one of the leaders in condor monitoring and protection.

“We work to conserve birds of prey worldwide by studying them, identifying limiting variables, sharing our data with policy makers, and then reestablishing populations sometimes by reintroduction,” Chris Parish, condor reintroduction project director for the Peregrine Fund, said in an email. “We breed the birds in captivity, release, monitor and treat them for maladies such as lead poisoning as needed, all the while working with management agencies to ameliorate the limiting variables that impair recovery and sustainability.”

California Condor #99, part of a pair that was exhibiting breeding behavior at Zion until they both died in 2013. Both are suspected to have succumbed to lead poisoning, though only one was confirmed.  Photo: Cassie Waters

There is no doubting the program’s success thus far: The species now exceeds 400 and spans three states down into Baja, Mexico. There is, however, a paradox in this “success.” Although human action is the greatest threat to the existence of the condors’ species, it is also the driving force in its continuation.

As scavengers, condors typically are able to thrive wherever plentiful carcasses exist. Climate change may even expand the condor’s range, according to Waters, and prove beneficial for the species’ survival. But Waters said that the main issue is that most people don’t even know lead poisoning and condor extinction are still issues.

“The captive breeding program has been a huge success,” Waters said. “They’re doing well—except for the lead. That is the one road block to the recovery of the species. If we can get lead out of the environment I think they would do well.”

Waters described the condor’s relationship with humans as “very intertwined.”

“[Condors are] considered wild once they’re released, you know, but for any wild population of animals, they’re managed more heavily than any species, having to be recaptured every year,” she said.

Efforts to combat condor extinction, however, are a widely felt sentiment: California will be the first state to ban all uses of lead bullets with a law that, signed in 2013, will take full effect by 2019. Parish, though, who is also a hunter, actually prefers to promote and engage in a more grassroots effort to protect condors.

“We currently have a voluntary lead reduction program for big-game hunting in two states (AZ and UT) and we are working to develop a similar program for small game and varmint hunting,” Parish said. “We pride ourselves in working with target audiences to achieve lasting change.  If the public decides legislative processes are necessary to mitigate, then so be it, but it doesn’t have to be that way and we, and our cooperating agencies, have achieved over 80 percent participation from the big-game hunters in Arizona and Utah, and that is a tremendous beginning to an effective lead reduction campaign.”

Although non-lead ammunition has a few drawbacks—including a higher expense and further cleaning requirements—these pale in comparison to the dangers associated with lead for both condors and human health. When lead is used to hunt game and that game is sold at a butcher, there is a chance that lead poisoning can effect whoever consumes that meat.

“Since the summer of 2000, lead poisoning accounts for half of all diagnosed deaths in the Arizona and Utah condor population,” Parish said. “The beauty of this, and what the public should take away, is that this cause of mortality and sickness is preventable.  We are heading down the road of making sure we prevent it.”

The National Park Service is aware of this issue, understanding that collaboration, cooperation and education are integral in preventing another condor death by lead within its borders and beyond.

While California condors are the rarest bird in North American, they can still occasionally be spotted in Zion. NPS Photo/Rebecca Alfafara

“We have a multi-park condor educational outreach program that just started this year,” Waters said, adding that Pinnacle National Park is spearheading the program based on their already-comprehensive condor program.

 “Basically, [this coalition aims] to get a common message and trunk of educational materials that every park in the condors’ range will get,” Waters said. “The thought is that, if we have one common message, we will get it across to people a lot better and develop some commonalities across parks. It’s good when National Parks work together.”

Although Zion lost its male condor this summer, Waters said that this tragic event may carry with it a level of aspiration, perhaps bringing forward the necessary attention to decrease lead use and increase awareness of this danger to condor health.

By acting on what we learned from this one condor’s death, hopefully we can make the region safe for the small number that remain.

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