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This Week’s Creature Feature: A Great Save

The California condor’s escape from extinction
     The California condor was on the brink of extinction. How close it really was, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife describes:
     In April 1987, the last wild condor was captured. The entire world population of the species was 27 birds, and all were housed in two captive breeding facilities in southern California. These individuals were Topatopa, captured in 1967; nine once-free-flying adult and immature birds trapped from 1982 to 1987; four young birds removed as nestlings from nests from 1982 to 1984; and 13 captive-reared condors hatched from eggs removed from nests in 1983 through 1986. Some are very closely related, but others possibly represent distant relatives.
      The largest bird in North America, California condors have a wingspan of over nine feet and can weigh more than 20 pounds. Like vultures, they glide on warm rising air currents. They also eat carrion. The original range of the condor was from Florida along the Gulf of Mexico to all the entire west.
      The cause of their population collapse was multiple factors over many years. As European settlers moved west, the birds were thought to attack livestock and were easy to shoot or ­poison. Then the animals that they fed on became scarcer. DDT use caused the eggs to be fragile. Over the past 60 or so years, the major cause of their decline is the use of lead bullets. Wild game that is mortally wounded frequently is lost to the hunter. The condors then eat the embedded lead while feeding on the carcass.
     As of July 1 of this year, California has enacted a ban on the use of lead for any hunting. The U.S. government recently repealed its ban for using lead in shotguns. Other states within the condor’s range continue to allow lead bullets, and in California lead is still illegally being used. Wildlife rehabilitation centers frequently have to treat ill birds with chelation therapy to remove the lead.
     Since the last wild California condor was captured, a complicated process of breeding and reintroduction was started. Within those 27 captive birds were three clans with distinct genetics. The breeding pairs were carefully selected to try to prevent genetic weakness. By 1990, more than 20 birds were hatched each year in captivity, and a wild population was started. The area around Big Sur in California was one of the first areas of reintroduction.
    The program has been very successful, and the California condor numbers are now above 500. They range from most of California south to Mexico and west to Arizona and Utah.
     Thirty-eight condors live in the area of the Grand Canyon. Two weeks ago, while I was watching the sunrise from Mather Point, one of the great birds flew directly over my head.
     The return of the California condor to the wild is one or the great saves for an animal species.
     The Endangered Species Act has very recently been reinterpreted, with the cost of preserving a species now to be considered. Certainly saving the condor has been a costly effort involving hunters, landowners and biologists.