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A narrow strip of US Route 1 brings millions of tourists a year to the steep chaparral flanks of the Santa Lucia Range of Big Sur, on the rugged central California coast. Head east into the mountainous Ventana Wilderness, however, and there are few roads and almost no development. On this remote terrain, five California condor chicks were getting ready to fledge in the October sunshine.
These six-month-old condors mark an important milestone for the species. Just 28 years ago, California condors were extinct in the wild. Now, with these five chicks, their population in central California has ticked above 100. Throughout the southwest United States, their total wild population is well over 300 and still increasing.
In the coming months, the Ventana Wildlife Society, which co-manages the central California condors with Pinnacles National Park, plans to release six more captive-bred condors, says Kelly Sorenson, the society’s executive director. The park also plans to release two, pushing the regional population to 111.
“To have more than a 10 percent increase in condor population in one year is just amazing,” Sorenson says. “The story of the condor is a hopeful one and shows we can make a difference if we work at it.”
This success has been decades in the making. By 1987, biologists had captured the last of the 27 wild California condors. The population of these black-feathered birds, with their large pinkish-orange heads and three-meter wingspans, had shrunk from thousands spread across nearly all of the Pacific coast—from southern British Columbia to northern Baja California—to a handful in the coastal California mountains.
A captive breeding program, initiated in 1987, kept the birds from disappearing altogether. By 1992, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was releasing juvenile condors into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, 70 kilometers east of Santa Barbara, California. But these birds were plagued by the same threat that had brought them down in the first place: lead.
Ranchers and farmers have long used lead bullets to shoot ground squirrels, coyotes, and other mammals. Condors would scavenge these carcasses then die. For California condors, even a small sliver of lead from a bullet fragment is fatal. Since the recovery program began in 1992, 83 condors have died from lead poisoning—40 percent of the recorded deaths, Sorenson says.
The condors have hit this important new population milestone thanks in part to efforts to stamp out the threat of lead poisoning. Since 2012, the Ventana Wildlife Society has handed out lead-free ammunition to hunters and ranchers for free. And on July 1, California banned lead ammunition.
Another key piece in the recovery is the rebound of marine mammals on the California coast, where pinnipeds such as harbor seals and California sea lions are nearing their maximum sustainable populations. At the same time, cyclical fluctuations in their numbers, along with die-offs in El Niño years and during heatwaves, have given condors ample sustenance.
For many species, climate-driven changes in the Pacific Ocean are leading to a concerning uptick in marine mammal deaths. But harbor seals and California sea lions tend to rebound quickly, says Jim Harvey, director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, 60 kilometers north of Big Sur. Since condors feed on death, “there’s a little bit of nuance to it,” he notes.
The nutrient-rich flesh of marine mammals has actually been good for the birds.
“I’ve never seen condor chicks so fat and healthy as when their parents were feeding them from a beached gray whale,” says Joe Burnett, a biologist with the Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor recovery program.
California condors are close to reaching the recovery goals set by the USFWS in 1996, which call for a wild flock of at least 150 in California and Baja as well as 150 in Utah and Arizona, with 15 nesting pairs in each region and a population that is self-sustaining, Sorenson says.
“We’re on the verge of attaining recovery goals, then we’ll need a whole new set of targets,” Sorenson says. “It’s exciting that we are close to downlisting condors from endangered to threatened.”