Saving the California Condor – Endangered State Icon

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

November 3, 2013

Years ago, I worked as a biological technician at what was then the premier wildlife research institute not just in America but the entire world – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.

Under its dedicated director Dr. Lucille Stickel and others, Patuxent conducted cutting-edge research into endangered species, habitat management, wildlife food habits, wetlands creation and management, as well as the effects of pesticides, heavy metals, oil and other contaminants on waterfowl, raptors (hawks, eagles and owls), songbirds and bats. Records on the banding of millions of migratory and neotropical birds throughout North and South America were gathered and maintained at Patuxent.

I assisted on several studies examining the effects of the widely used and widely dispersed toxic heavy metal, lead, on waterfowl. At that time, lead was found in gasoline, paint and toys, as well as in bullets and shot. The research conducted at Patuxent and elsewhere led to the eventual removal of lead from birdshot used in waterfowl hunting. To our lasting benefit, lead was removed from gasoline, paint and toys too.

Patuxent also was intimately involved with the last-ditch but successful effort to save the California condor from the clutches of extinction. On their 10-ft. wingspans, largest of any bird in North America, a wide-ranging fleet of condors used to soar through the skies of California and the vast blue vaults of the Southwest, scanning the horizon with their keen eyes for carrion scattered across the landscape.

By 1987, however, the entire surviving population of condors in the wild had plummeted to just 22 sorry specimens. An entire species had been reduced to no more than the number of players in a football game.

Like many creatures in biodiverse, population-heavy California, the condor was a casualty of human overpopulation and overexploitation of the landscape in their many guises. One of these guises was widespread contamination of animal carcasses, downed game and “gut piles” with hunters’ lead-based ammunition. When the birds ingested flesh containing lead bullets, fragments and pellets, they frequently fell victim to lead poisoning. The studies I participated in at Patuxent corroborated the toxicity of lead to wildlife; its potency as neurotoxin in humans is also well established.

In 1987, in a bold but risky and highly controversial move, all remaining condors in the wild were captured in a desperate bid to rescue this species from eternal oblivion. These survivors were cared for and bred at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo, and their numbers grew such that, beginning in 1991, they began to be reintroduced into the wild in California and northern Arizona.

However, the California condor remains one of the rarest birds on Earth; as of 2013, there are only an estimated 435 condors in total, including 237 in the wild and 198 in captivity.

And spent lead ammo continues to poison them. A 2013 study of 123 condor deaths by the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that lead was the cause of mortality in 42 cases (34%).

CAPS and this blogger regularly criticize Gov. Jerry Brown because his unstinting support for mass immigration betrays not only California but the rule of law and undermines his support for the environment by fueling overpopulation. But in signing a bill this month making all hunting ammunition lead-free (not just shot for waterfowl hunting), Brown actually did something right.

The California condor is a California icon. Any hope of restoring the grandeur that once was this great state would be dashed were this great bird permanently erased from its skies. Where condors still soar, so does hope.

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