IN HUMAN HANDS: THE FUTURE OF THE CALIFORNIA CONDOR
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.
FOR WVU MAGAZINE
From a distance, the mountain ridges surrounding Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge emanate a golden hue that would ignite the imagination of anyone educated by Hollywood movies about the landscape of the American West. But the image of what this land looked like before it was settled has long faded and been relegated to an obscure memory.
The golden-brown color that blankets these hills now is the product of wild oat and slender oat, two invasive species that spread easily and produce sharp, needle-like seed pods that effortlessly overtake a pair of khakis after a short walk through the brush.
Jonathan Hall, an assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Geography at West Virginia University, navigates his pearl-white SUV past the unlocked gate of the wildlife refuge. Nearby, a brown U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sign operating as a combination of signpost and keep-out poster reads: “This area is closed to protect the California condor.” The refuge is one of the release and trapping sites for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Condor Recovery Program.
In 1967, the U.S. Congress listed the California condor, the largest bird in North America, as an endangered species. Included on the list with the condor were two other iconic species: the southern bald eagle and the American alligator. The American alligator was removed from the list in 1987, and 20 years later in 2007 the southern bald eagle was also removed from the endangered species list, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the California condor is still listed as endangered, and its recovery has been slow with approximately 450 birds in captivity and the wild combined. Condors continue to face high mortality rates and sub-lethal negative impacts due to exposure to lead, organic pesticides — such as DDE and DDT — and microtrash — such as small, worn down pieces of plastic. Just before leaving office, President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning lead ammunition on public lands, according to National Public Radio. President Donald Trump’s administration overturned that ban.
In 2013, researchers from WVU received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to study the flight patterns and spatial ecology of the California condor in an effort to support the species. Spatial ecology uses landscape patterns to find answers to environmental, ecological and conservation issues. Hall is using the grant to explore the movement ecology of condors to help condor conservationists understand the landscape patterns where birds are foraging. He thinks the research could lead to more efficient wildlife management techniques and as a basis for legislative policy changes.
Nestled in between former ranchlands, the southern California condors have been given a home carved out of an anthropogenic landscape. According to the U.S. Census, Los Angeles County is the largest county by population in the nation, with more than 10 million people. The condors’ habitat is near this area, and the influence of people can be felt on the landscape and on the wildlife.
Across this terrain at the Bitter Creek Refuge, barbed wire fences and powdery dirt roads cut an imprecise map in a pristine but tamed landscape. A train of SUVs kick up loose dirt as they move down a winding trail to the condor trapping site. The caravan of vehicles stops inside a chain-link fence enclosure that surrounds a wildlife trap site. Hall rolls down the dust-covered window to get a better look at the half-dozen condors that have gathered around the trap site where another 11 condors are trapped inside the cage. All the condors have numbered tags attached to their wings. Hall raises a camera with a telephoto lens to photograph two condors perched on a dead tree just outside the large cage.
“I think condors are a unique species because they live in such an obviously human-dominated landscape,” Hall said.
The traditional ecological approach to studying the California condor would have focused solely on the bird’s behavior. But Hall’s Conservation Geography Lab at WVU employs enhanced telemetry technology to open new areas of research on the condors. These units use technology similar to what people carry around in their smartphones to transmit GPS location, flight speed, temperature and altitude to a remote server every 15 minutes. This data has not only allowed researchers to examine the condors’ location during flight. It also allows them to study ground foraging habits, giving the researchers a peek into daily situations where condors are most vulnerable to lead poisoning and microtrash exposure.
The researchers ultimately hope these studies will help condor conservationists focus their management and clean-up efforts. Lee Ann Nolan, a geography PhD candidate, has been researching how remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems can be combined to paint a more detailed map of the condors’ landscape, including an analysis of the impact of land and vegetation cover on the condors’ foraging patterns. Geology and Geography undergraduates Haley Mutz and Mark Hare are mapping microtrash sites. Condors often mistake microtrash for food and feed it to their chicks, which over time can block their digestive systems.
On this autumn day in southern California, Joseph Brandt, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and supervisor of the condor recovery program, opens the door that leads to the cage to look for a specific condor. Brandt spots Condor 374 on a man-made perch. He moves to isolate the condor in a corner, stepping through the remains of carrion littered on the pen floor. In his hands is a five-foot pole with a wide-mouth net attached. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, condors’ wingspans can stretch out to nine feet and they can weigh over 20 pounds. Brandt lunges at the condor. The net whips through the air. In a futile escape attempt, Condor 374 spreads his wings to flee. The sound of his powerful wings vibrates the air. Once trapped in the net, Condor 374 quickly calms down and Brandt smoothly moves his hand in to grab the bird’s powerful beak and then remove it from the net. If Brandt slips, the condor could easily rip a piece of flesh from his body.
Trapping is now common among condors for good reason.
In 1992, the California condor population reached a low of 27 birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulled the remaining birds from the wild and started a captive breeding program.
In two and half decades their numbers have improved, growing to more than 400 birds, but the condor needs a considerable amount of human management to maintain this population size. Every wild condor — about 200 individuals across three states and Mexico — is trapped twice a year for a lead blood test and to have their tags and transmitters checked. Brandt also climbs into individual condors’ nests to check that they are developing properly. He can check on a single nest four to six times over 10 months.
Brandt has been working closely with condors in this region for a decade, handling many of the birds that belong to the southern California flock.
“The condor population in southern California is akin to an extended family or a group of close friends, because that is how intimate our management is,” Brandt said. “We suspect that condors live about 60 years ... We actually don’t know. We never really had a condor live out his entire life. This is the challenge of dealing with a species that has issues with human-caused mortality.”
Condor 374 is an adult bird. He has a full coat of black feathers, a long pink neck and orange head with a powerful, sharp beak designed to rip flesh from decaying bones. Brandt holds the condor tightly in his arms with his right hand wrapped tightly around the bird’s beak, as he moves to the examining station.
Three folding chairs are lined up next to one another. Within arm’s reach, a black utility tray contains Ziploc bags filled with syringes, needles and other medical supplies. Sharon Poessel, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist, sits in the middle chair and Hall takes the seat on her right side. Over their shoulders the sun cuts a swath of light through the overcast sky that illuminates the mountains in the distance. The majestic view is interrupted only by the thin lines of fences and dirt roads etched in the mountainside. Brandt carefully hands Condor 374 over to Poessel, making sure that she has a firm grip on the beak and is in control of the bird’s neck with her free arm wrapped around its body. Hall holds onto the condor’s feet to make sure the bird cannot use them to wiggle free. Brandt bends down and starts a general examination of the condor and draws blood to check his lead levels.
Lead poisoning is one the major causes of mortality in adult condors. According to the Journal of Wildlife Management, exposure to high levels of lead can paralyze the small pouch in a condor’s gullet that it uses to digest food. The condition is called crop paralysis and, if left untreated, it will result in the bird starving to death.
“Condors are exposed to lead when they eat an animal that has been shot with lead ammunition,” Brandt said. “Condors will often use the wound channel of that animal as a place to start feeding, because it is an easy way to get into the meat.
“In reality, it is a simple problem to solve now that we know where the exposure is coming from, but we just need to find a way to reduce the amount of lead being used in the shooting of wildlife.”
Graduate students from Hall’s lab have been using GPS data to study where condors forage during hunting season. Research assistant Garrett Pullis, BA ’16, Geography, used three years of data to pinpoint whether the condors were spending their time foraging on private or public lands. The students discovered that the condors are spending much of their foraging time on private lands.
Since 2015, California has been phasing in a lead ammunition ban. By 2019, it will be illegal to use lead ammunition to hunt wildlife anywhere in the state. Condors can travel from 150-180 kilometers a day and not all the land in the condors’ range is public. There are large private hunting ranches located within the condor’s foraging area, including the 240,000-acre Tejon Ranch, the largest private hunting ranch in California. Tejon has had a ban on lead ammunition since 2007.
Still, according to Brandt, more than 20 percent of the condors in southern California test positive for lead poisoning each year. Pullis hopes the WVU study will spur additional changes in enforcement of lead ammunition bans on private lands.
Condor 374’s tests show that his lead levels are dangerously high, and Brandt and his team decide that he needs treatment. Brandt gently takes him from Poessel’s arms and loads him into a beige animal crate to be transported to the Los Angeles Zoo for treatment.
The zoo resides within the 4,300-acre Griffith Park — the roads that circle the L.A. Zoo weave within a landscape that perfectly hides the mass of humanity surrounding its borders. On the way to the zoo, Hall spots a coyote crossing a golf course near the zoo’s staff entrance. The line that divides the natural and human landscapes has been erased here.
Earlier this year one of the L.A. Zoo’s koalas went missing. The suspect is a mountain lion called P-22, also known as Los Angeles’ Mountain Lion. A recent headline in the Los Angeles Times used a very human word to describe the mountain lion’s actions, saying that the koala was “murdered.” Applying a very human action to a wild animal trapped in a 4,300-acre park surrounded by 3 million people evokes the anthropomorphism of an animated family cartoon.
Brandt drives Condor 374 to Gottlieb Animal Health and Conservation Center at the zoo. Mike Clark, an L.A. Zoo animal keeper, uses a net to remove Condor 374 from his crate. Once Clark has control of him, he places Condor 374 on an examination table. The zoo’s veterinarian staff check the general condition of the bird and X-ray him to see if he has any lead bullet fragments in his digestive tract. They administer calcium EDTA that helps remove lead from his system. For now, this treatment will save Condor 374 from immediate danger, and he will eventually be released back into the wild.
The future of the California condor is in human hands, Hall says. In many ways, the condor’s survival is at odds with the fast-paced march of human civilization. Hall believes this conflict pits Western humanity’s belief in progress against our romanticized connection to nature.
“Saving condors somewhat absolves us of the negative impacts that humans have had on the landscape,” Hall said. “I don’t think we can have polar bears and new smartphones every year. I don’t think we can have self-sustained wild condors and instantaneous communication across the globe. Free ranging populations of grizzly bears in the lower 48 and 24-hour grocery stores are hard to maintain simultaneously.”
“There’s an infrastructure and momentum to our modern world that seems at odds with wildlife and wilderness, and while we tend not to juxtapose wildlife conservation and the trappings of modern civilization, it’s hard to study these animals, where they live and how they’re impacted by us and not wonder about the moral and philosophical foundations of what humans have built and maintained across landscapes.
“Civilization doesn’t seem to be working for these birds, so if we’d rather they not go extinct the question becomes, ‘What are we willing to learn and then change to prevent the disappearance of the California condor?’”