Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

California Condor Comeback in the Pacific Northwest

Very high on my bucket list is to see a California condor in the wild (Figure 1), ideally over Oregon. If my timing is good and the condors cooperate, this could happen.

Fig. 1.  A California condor in the wild (with the identification tag that every released individual carries). Source:  US Fish and Wildlife Service .

Fig. 1. A California condor in the wild (with the identification tag that every released individual carries).Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is proposing to establish a “nonessential experimental population” (NEP) of the endangered California condor in an area that includes the entire state of Oregon. Prevention of the California condor’s going the way of the dodo bird, the passenger pigeon, and so many other bird species is a conservation success story in the making, on par with that of saving the whooping crane. For both the crane and the condor, the total number of individuals declined to the low double digits (fifteen and twenty-two respectively) before their recovery began.

The Largest North American Vulture

The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is the largest of the North American vultures and the largest soaring land bird on the continent. Its wingspan can reach ~9.5 feet. The males are slightly larger than the females, with average weights of 19.4 and 17.9 pounds respectively. Unlike many bird species, condors show no difference in coloration or morphology between the sexes. Adults are generally black, save for prominent white underwing linings and edges of the upper secondary coverts (the feathers covering the bases of the main flight or tail feathers). Adult heads and necks are mostly naked of feathers and range in color from yellowish to reddish orange on the head to gray, yellow, orange, and red on the neck (Figure 2).

California condors are “obligate scavengers,” meaning they rely entirely on dead animals for food. Evolutionarily significant adaptations include (1) a large size to better compete for carcasses, (2) large bellies to accommodate feast-or-famine eating opportunities, (3) excellent eyesight to find food when soaring and gliding, (4) hooked bills, long necks, and largely naked (featherless) heads to efficiently exploit carcasses while minimizing the potential for feather fouling, and (5) resistance to bacterial toxins that are often found in rotting animals.

Fig. 2.  A California condor at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, California . Source: Scott Flaherty/ Fish and Wildlife Service .

Fig. 2. A California condor at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, California. Source: Scott Flaherty/Fish and Wildlife Service.

California Condor Collapse

Before the end of the Pleistocene, California condors were found as far east as the boreal forests of what is now New York. Historically, at the time of European colonization, California condors were widespread and locally abundant from what is now British Columbia to Baja California and from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, though they were relatively infrequent east of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges. Their abundance was at least partially due to the availability of marine-derived carrion (from beached whales, other dead marine mammals, and spawned-out salmon in the streams).

Then the Europeans showed up. According to the USFWS:

California condor population declines and range contractions were concurrent with Euro-American settlement of the West, with condors disappearing from the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s, and from Baja California by the end of the 1930s. By the middle of the 20th century, the species was reduced to about 150 individuals limited to the mountains of southern California, and at the time we formally classified them as an endangered species in 1967, the population had further declined to an estimated 60 condors. Most probable causes of their historical decline include: (1) Secondary poisoning from predator removal campaigns, (2) direct persecution, and (3) lead poisoning from spent ammunition that fragmented in animals condors later fed upon. [internal citations omitted]

In what is now Oregon during their 1805–06 explorations, Lewis and Clark reported seeing and killing for science California condors along the Columbia River, especially at Celilo Falls. Less than a century later, the last reliable observations of California condors in Oregon were made near Drain in Douglas County in 1903 and 1904.

In their book California Condors in the Pacific Northwest (OSU Press, 2013)—which I highly recommend—authors Jesse D’Elia and Susan M. Haig exhaustively analyze the major hypotheses for decline of the species: 

• secondary poisoning (by strychnine meant to kill predators)

• lead poisoning

• eggshell thinning due to DDT/DDE

• collecting and shooting

• egg collecting

• loss of nesting habitat

• Native American ritual killings

• food increases in southern and central California (dead domestic livestock), keeping condors from ranging elsewhere for food

• food declines (fewer whales, salmon, grizzly bears, wolves, and other carrion or carrion makers) 

By carefully considering timeframe and impacts, D’Elia and Haig persuasively conclude that the main causes of condor decline were secondary poisoning, lead poisoning, and collecting and shooting. Factors limiting the recovery of the species today are food declines, chemically induced eggshell thinning, and loss of nesting habitat. (By the way, D’Elia is the primary author of the proposed rule regarding establishment of a nonessential experimental population in the Northwest.)

Getting the Lead Out

Any hunters who tell you they are conservationists and who also use lead ammunition are lying to you, if not also to themselves. Lead toxicosis accounted for 76 (26 percent) of the total 290 mortalities of condors in the wild from 1992 to 2017. Only 7 deaths were caused by shooting (in all likelihood with lead ammunition). Other verifiable condor killers included predation (29), powerline electrocution (16), trauma (12), and drowning (6).

The USFWS has this to say about lead ammunition: “The primary threat to the viability of the California condor is lead poisoning from spent ammunition left in gut-piles or carcasses of animals that condors feed upon.” According to the Oregon Zoo, “Lead poisoning is the single greatest threat to the survival of condors. When condors and other scavengers feed on the remains of animals shot with lead ammunition, lead can enter their bloodstream, affecting the central nervous system and leading to starvation or predation in their weakened state. Using lead-free ammunition spares scavengers a slow death and provides a vital seasonal food source (gut piles) for many animals.” The zoo also singles out microtrash (plastics and glass) and DDT (which though banned persists in the food chain) as condor threats.

As the Oregon Zoo notes, “There is no safe level of lead, which is a toxic heavy metal. Lead has already been widely removed from paint, gasoline, toys and water pipes. Removing lead from the environment helps protect wildlife and people.” According to the zoo, “Lead bullets shatter on impact. The bodies of animals shot with lead ammunition often contain toxic, microscopic lead fragments far from the initial point of entry. Solid copper bullets leave a clean path with few or no fragments.”

As usual, California is leading the way by banning as of July 1, 2019, the use of lead ammunition to take any wildlife by way of a firearm (though one can still shoot people with lead bullets). While banning its use in certain state wildlife management areas, Oregon generally relies on cooperation rather than regulation. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with its counterparts in Arizona and Utah, has joined the North American Non-Lead Partnership, formed by the Oregon Zoo, the Peregrine Fund, and the Institute for Wildlife Studies. The time is ripe for Oregon to regulate lead ammunition out of existence, benefiting not only condors but also other native species (such as golden and bald eagles) that dine on gut piles or carcasses left by hunters.

Hunters whine about not being able to use lead ammunition, though alternatives exist. Solid copper bullets for rifles (and steel shot for shotguns) do the job with less collateral damage. A major factor in hunter resistance is resistance to change. There are those who also resisted unleaded gasoline, lead-free paint, energy-efficient lightbulbs, seat belts, and other demonstrable technological improvements.

Lead ammunition is a hotter political issue than it should be. On his last day in office, President Obama banned the use of lead ammunition on federal lands. The first thing new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did was to reverse the ban.

California Condor Recovery

By any account, captive breeding of the condor followed by reintroduction into the wild is working. As of 2017, there were 290 condors in the wild in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California, as well as 173 in captivity. The population has been slowly but steadily rising (Figure 3). While it has not been without setbacks, the recovery of the California condor is well under way (Figure 4).

Fig. 3.  The decline and rise of the California condor . Source:  Oregon Zoo .

Fig. 3. The decline and rise of the California condor. Source: Oregon Zoo.

The Oregon Zoo is central to the effort to bring back the condor to the Pacific Northwest. In 2003, the zoo had six captive breeding pairs brought to a 52-acre facility in Clackamas County. Chicks from the Oregon Zoo program have been released in Arizona and California, and seven are breeding in the wild. One can see three adult birds that cannot be released back into the wild in the Condors of the Columbia habitat at the Oregon Zoo. The Oregon Zoo is forthright about lead ammunition being the limiting factor to condor reintroduction:

The Oregon Zoo would like to see California condors once again soar over the Pacific Northwest, but it is not simply a matter of releasing birds into their historic range. A successful reintroduction hinges on protecting the released birds from premature death. Until the problem of lead poisoning is resolved, condors will not be fully recovered in the wild.

Fig. 4.  The return of successful condor reproduction in the wild, represented by burnt orange, the most beautiful color on this chart. Source:  US Fish and Wildlife Service .

Fig. 4. The return of successful condor reproduction in the wild, represented by burnt orange, the most beautiful color on this chart.Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Native American Tribal Involvement

The Yurok Tribe has been instrumental in bringing the condor back to the southwest corner of the Pacific Northwest and deserves our thanks and support.

In 2016, in the opposite corner of the Pacific Northwest, the Nez Perce Tribe received a $200,000 grant from the USFWS to pursue reintroducing the California condor in Hells Canyon. The “Condors in Hells Canyon” project was to conduct an assessment of condor habitat and threats to successful reintroduction in the greater Hells Canyon ecosystem. Last year, the Nez Perce welcomed a captive condor hatchling at the World Center for Birds in Boise.

While I sincerely hope the Nez Perce effort goes well, I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons. First, while the nesting and soaring habitat in Hells Canyon is surely adequate, I wonder if there is enough carrion. Grizzly bears and wolves, both carrion sources and carrion makers for condors, are scarce. Spawning salmon carcasses are low along the Snake River because spawning salmon are low due to seven Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) dams downstream and three Idaho Power dams upstream. (California condors are another among many fine reasons to remove the four ACE dams on the lower Snake River.) Second, if you thought that limiting the use of lead ammunition in Oregon is tough, just consider Idaho. It’s called the Mississippi of the West for a reason.

The Proposed NEP in the Pacific Northwest

According to the USFWS proposal, up to eight birds annually will be released into the wild from the Bald Hills in Redwood National Park for at least the next twenty years. The Bald Hills are grasslands above redwood forest with adequate topography to allow young condors to achieve flight. The USFWS is drawing the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest NEP of condors large enough to “ensure that any California condors originating from the releases at Redwood National Park and flying north into Oregon are recognized as members of the NEP and are covered by the NEP regulations” (Figure 5). 

The notion of an NEP arises from the Endangered Species Act. The act specifies that an “essential population” is essential for the recovery of a species, while a “nonessential experimental population” is not, even though both are located within the historic—if not current—range of the imperiled species. Birds in an NEP (which is rather essential in my view) don’t count toward the scientific goals established in a recovery plan for a species. However, in the case of the California condor, the NEP is essential for restoring the species throughout more of its original range.

Fig. 5.  The boundaries of the nonessential experimental population of California condors in the Pacific Northwest . Source:  US Fish and Wildlife Service .

Fig. 5. The boundaries of the nonessential experimental population of California condors in the Pacific Northwest. Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

In general, the standard for “taking” (killing, injuring, harassing) members of an NEP is lower than for the essential population, experimental or otherwise. In this case, the USFWS will be enforcing few restrictions on activities that could harm the condors, other than within 200 meters of a nest site. One will not be able to intentionally take the condors, but incidental take due to otherwise lawful actions will be allowed.

Members of an NEP are treated as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) only on lands in the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System. On all other lands, members of an NEP are treated as if they were members of a species proposed for protection under the ESA. In the latter case, formal ESA consultation is not required, but informal conferencing (as in conferring) is.

Condor Captivity: I Was Wrong (and Ken Starr Was Right)

It is easy to see in retrospect that the USFWS decision in the mid-1980s to capture the last wild condors and institute captive breeding was right. The aim was to conserve both the remaining individuals and, just as important, the genetic diversity that remained, in anticipation of the condor’s reintroduction into the wild. At the time, the wisdom of this course was not at all clear.

David Brower, one of the greatest conservationists who has ever lived, was adamant that any wild birds should remain wild and that the best course was to expand the Ventana Wilderness, the last redoubt for the species. Audubon sued the USFWS over its decision to seize all the wild birds and won in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. However, the decision was reversed on appeal by a three-judge panel.

Though not involved in the issue, I was half the age I am now and aligned with Brower and Audubon. I was wrong. Unlike the decline of many other native species, the looming extinction of the California condor was not about the loss of more habitat but about low reproductive success due to low numbers, lead and other poisoning, and other factors. I generally felt, and still do, that nature knows best if we humans leave her enough room. However, in this case, because we humans had so screwed things up, simply trying not to screw up anymore was necessary but not sufficient.

It has not hurt that the Ventana Wilderness, established by Congress in 1969, was expanded by Congress in 1978, 1984, and 1992 (now totaling 236,726 acres), partly if not primarily to conserve critical condor habitat. But sometimes the mere prevention or reduction of human-caused ecological irritants is not sufficient to reverse environmental harm. Sometimes, to conserve and restore nature, humans have to play god.

Today, California Audubon explains itself thusly:

Opposed to this total elimination of a species from the wild, the National Audubon Society sued the USFWS to prohibit the capture of the last wild birds in 1986, but they were unsuccessful. Audubon hoped that the last wild pair, while being monitored and fed clean (lead-free) food, could serve as a “guide bird” for the proposed release of captive-bred condors. However, when the female of the last pair died from lead poisoning in 1986, it was clear that the only option was to bring the birds in, rather than wait for the last one to die.

Ken Starr? No, he wasn’t right about Clinton and Lewinsky, but he was one of the three judges on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals that unanimously overruled the district court. If only Starr had not given up that lifetime judicial appointment.

(I am indebted to Jason Crotty of Portland, a birder, lawyer, and writer, for his review of the legal history of the decision to capture the last wild condors.)