In late 1984 and early 1985, six California condors died in the wild, leaving just nine wild and 21 captive condors in the world. In the year that followed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its conservation partners made the complex, difficult and controversial decisions to capture the last remaining wild condors and rely on an unproven ability to breed condors in captivity to ensure the species’ survival.
“No one who has ever seen wild California condors circling majestically among the clouds will ever forget the riveting nature of the experience or question why we, as a society, should make every effort possible to promote the full recovery of this species,” wrote Noel and Helen Snyder, authors of Introduction to the California Condor.
The decisions hold a justified place in the history of conservation as unprecedented and have led to what is arguably the boldest and most ambitious effort to save an endangered species up to that point, and perhaps even still. Yet, 30 years later, some still debate those decisions and the future direction of the California condor recovery program.
John McCamman served as the California Condor Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until he retired this past summer, completing a 36-year public service career.
McCamman will describe recovery initiatives and the current status of the condor population in a slide presentation, “Back from the Brink: Saving the California Condor from Extinction,” at the monthly program of the Yosemite Area Audubon Society at 7 p.m., Jan. 14, at the Oakhurst Methodist Church on Road 426.
He said while scientists have made significant progress in reestablishing wild condor populations since 1992, when the reintroduction of captive-bred condors to the wild began, conservation challenges, most notably lead poisoning, remain.
Lead poisoning, often from the consumption of carrion containing lead fragments from spent shot or ammunition, is the most common cause of death for these scavenging birds. More than 40% of condor deaths in the wild, where cause of death could be determined through necropsy, were the result of lead poisoning. California has addressed this issue by outlawing lead ammunition for hunting, effective June 2019.
Although efforts to reduce the use of lead ammunition for hunting wildlife within the condors’ range have incurred some public disfavor, they are essential to ensure the species survival.
In the meantime, the condor population in the wild continues to grow. More than 230 condors now occur in the wild and roughly 190 are in captive breeding programs or housed in zoos. Approximately 40 of the condors in the wild are either progeny of wild pairs, or were substituted as eggs into wild nests and fully fledged in the wild. This year, two of these wild-fledged condors produced a chick, creating a second generation of truly wild condor.
Biologists in the recovery program continue to debate and discuss the next steps necessary to reduce the need for active management in the field, and eventually achieve full recovery.
“As a nation, we have invested tremendous thought and effort in creating a recovery success story for the California condor,” McCamman said. “As they did three decades ago, bold and challenging decisions made today will further secure this unique piece of our shared natural heritage.”
McCamman holds a masters degree in public administration and undergraduate degrees in political science and philosophy. He was introduced to the Sierra foothills when he became Mariposa County’s first county administrative officer in 1987. He and his wife Joan have returned to live in Mariposa since his retirement.
Like all YAAS programs, McCamman’s presentation Jan. 14 is open and free to the public, although donations to defray program costs and to support the chapter’s local activities are welcome.
YAAS will also lead a Tuesday Trek Jan. 19 to Sandy Mush Road and the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. Participants should meet at 7:45 a.m. at the Mariposa rest area adjacent to the history center and museum just off Highway 140 to carpool.
The trip is free and the public welcome. Bring binoculars, field guides, lunch, beverages, and wet-weather gear. Dress in layers and waterproof footwear.
Call (209) 742-5579 or visit www.yosemiteaudubon.org for additional information about the program, and call (209) 742-5181 about the field trip.
NOTE: Substantial portions of this article were excerpted from John McCamman’s recent article in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Bulletin.
Yosemite Area Audubon Society