Demand protection for the California Condor
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They are among California's most endangered animal list
A juvenile in the Grand Canyon, with its numbered tag prominent.
Obstacles to recovery
In modern times, a wide variety of causes have contributed to the condor's decline. Its low clutch size (one young per nest), combined with a late age of sexual maturity, make the bird vulnerable to artificial population decline. Significant past damage to the condor population has also been attributed to poaching, especially for museum specimens, lead poisoning (from eating animals containing lead shot), DDT poisoning, electric power lines, egg collecting, and habitat destruction. During the California Gold Rush, some condors were even kept as pets. The leading cause of mortality in nestling condors is the ingestion of trash that is fed to them by their parents.
In addition to this, cattle ranchers who observed condors feeding on the dead young of their cattle assumed that the birds killed the cattle. This fallacy led to the condor's extirpation in some parts of the western United States. This belief was so deeply ingrained that the reintroduction of condors to the Grand Canyon was challenged by some cattle ranchers, who mistakenly believed that the bird hunted calves and lambs.
Unanticipated deaths among recent condor populations occurred due to contact with golden eagles, lead poisoning, and other factors such as power line collisions. Since 1994, captive-bred California condors have been trained to avoid power lines and people. Since the implementation of this aversion conditioning program, the number of condor deaths due to power lines has greatly decreased. Lead poisoning due to fragmented lead bullets in large game waste is a particularly big problem for condors due to their extremely strong digestive juices; lead waste is not as much of a problem for other avian scavengers such as the turkey vulture and common raven. This problem has been addressed in California by the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, a bill that went into effect July 1, 2008 that requires that hunters use non-lead bullets when hunting in the condor's range. Blood lead levels in golden eagles as well as turkey vultures has declined with the implementation of the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, demonstrating that the legislation has helped reduce other species' lead exposures aside from the California condor.
In an article titled: "Condors or lead ammunition? We can't have both" published by The Ecologist in January 2015, author Dawn Starin states: "Over 60% of the adult and juvenile deaths (that is, excluding chicks and fledglings) in the wild population have been as a result of lead poisoning." She continues: "Because condors have been known to live past the age of 50, do not breed until they are at least six years old, and raise only one chick every other year, their populations cannot withstand the mortality rates caused by this neurological toxin." According to epidemiologist Terra Kelly: "Until all natural food sources are free from lead-based ammunition, lead poisoning will threaten recovery of naturally sustaining populations of condors in the wild." The article also states: "The military doesn't use lead, and if that isn't a huge message I don't know what is."
California Condor Recovery Plan
Condor chick being fed by condor feeding puppet
As the condor's population continued to decline, discussion began about starting a captive breeding program for the birds. Opponents to this plan argued that the condors had the right to freedom, that capturing all of the condors would change the species' habits forever, and that the cost was too great. However, the project received the approval of the United States government, and the capture of the remaining wild condors was completed on Easter Sunday 1987, when AC-9, the last wild condor, was captured. At that point, there were only 22 condors in existence, all in captivity.
The goal of the California Condor Recovery Plan was to establish two geographically separate populations, one in California and the other in Arizona, each with 150 birds and at least 15 breeding pairs. As the Recovery Program works toward this goal the number of release sites has grown. There are three active release sites in California, one in Arizona and one in Baja California, Mexico.
The captive breeding program, led by the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo, and with other participating zoos around the country, including the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, got off to a slow start due to the condor's mating habits. However, utilizing the bird's ability to double clutch, biologists began removing the first egg from the nest and raising it with puppets, allowing the parents to lay another egg.
Reintroduction to the wild
As the number of condors grew, attention began to focus on releasing some back into the wild. In 1988, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service began a reintroduction experiment involving the release of captive Andean condors into the wild in California. Only females were released, to eliminate the possibility of accidentally introducing a South American species into the United States. The experiment was a success, and all the Andean condors were recaptured and re-released in South America. California condors were released in 1991 and 1992 in California, and again in 1996 in Arizona near the Grand Canyon. Though the birth rate remains low in the wild, their numbers are increasing steadily through regular releases of captive-reared adolescents.
The California condor conservation project may be one of the most expensive species conservation projects in United States history, costing over $35 million, including $20 million in federal and state funding, since World War II. As of 2007 the annual cost for the condor conservation program was around $2.0 million per year. However, nesting milestones have been recently reached by the reintroduced condors. In 2003, the first nestling fledged in the wild since 1981. In March 2006, a pair of California condors, released by Ventana Wildlife Society, attempted to nest in a hollow tree near Big Sur, California. This was the first time in more than 100 years in which a pair of California condors had been seen nesting in Northern California.
In October 2010, the wild condor population in its name state of California reached 100 individuals, plus 73 wild condors in Arizona. In November 2011, there were 394 living individuals, 205 of which in the wild and the rest in the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Oregon Zoo, and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. In May 2012, the number of living individuals had reached 405, with 179 living in captivity. By June 2014, the condor population had reached 439: 225 in the wild and 214 in captivity. Official statistics from the December 2015 USFWS recorded an overall population of 435, of which 268 are wild and 167 are captive. A key milestone was reached in 2015 when more condors were born in the wild than died.
In 2014, Condor #597, also known as "Lupine", was spotted near Pescadero, a coastal community south of San Francisco. Lupine had been routinely seen at Pinnacles National Park after having been released into the wild at Big Sur the previous year. Younger birds of the Central California are seeking to expand their territory, which could mean that a new range expansion is possible for the more than 60 condors flying free in central California. Also in 2014 the first successful breeding in Utah was reported. A pair of condors, who were released in Arizona, nested in Zion National Park and the hatching of one chick was confirmed.
Pinnacles National Park, a release site
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