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YAAS Program Features California Condor

Contributed by Yosemite Area Audubon Society –

“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.

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.

Those 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.

California Condor

California Condor – photo U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/John McCamman

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. In that capacity, he managed the overall recovery program for this highly endangered species, including preparation of the statutorily required five-year review of the species’ status, development of an additional captive breeding program at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City and addition of another release site in the Yurok Tribal area of northern California.

John will describe these 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 (YAAS) at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14, at the Oakhurst Methodist Church at 49223 Road 426.

John says that 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 percent 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. In Arizona and Utah, state wildlife agencies have developed aggressive voluntary programs providing free or subsidized non-lead ammunition, shooting events and educational programs. 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.

Efforts to monitor the locations and activities of the animals allow biologists to detect early warning signs of lead poisoning. Wild condors are captured once or twice annually to be fitted with tracking devices and identifying tags, tested for blood lead and placed in captivity for chelation treatment if lead exposure is higher than prescribed levels. Clean food is provided to these animals—a practice that began with the release program in 1992—but as condors mature and become more experienced in the wild, their reliance on proffered food declines and natural foraging increases.

John acknowledges, “Many argue that the wild condor population is not truly wild given the interventions required to sustain the animals. And while this level of intervention is inconsistent with a fully recovered population, a hands-off approach is not yet feasible considering the existing threats to the population, particularly ingested lead from bullet fragments in wild carcasses.”

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. John concludes, “As a nation, we have invested tremendous thought and effort in creating a recovery success story for the California condor. As they did three decades ago, bold and challenging decisions made today will further secure this unique piece of our shared natural heritage.”

John holds a masters degree in public administration and undergraduate degrees in political science and philosophy. Prior to the condor position, John had served in numerous public policy and leadership positions at the local, state and federal levels, including chief deputy and subsequently director for the California Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife); chief of staff for Congressman George Radanovich; county administrator in Shasta County, California and budget analyst in Sonoma County, Calif. 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 John’s retirement.

Like all YAAS programs, John’s presentation on Jan. 14 is free and open 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 on 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.

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.

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