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The controversy surrounding the California condor may well outlive the species

“The people behind this have the rainbow-trout mentality”

On Sunday, April 19, the last known California condor was snatched from the wild. Depending on your viewpoint, this event was a great tragedy that marked the extinction of the wild condor or a great relief, signaling the beginning of a new era for a bird species that had dwindled to just twenty-seven individuals. The bird’s captors hope to breed it in the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos, then release a new population of condors into a grave new world of controlled feedings and limited range. Here’s my viewpoint: We blew it.

I came to that conclusion six days after the last wild condor was brought into the safety of civilization. It struck me in the village of Lazaro Cardenas, 150 miles south of San Diego, in Baja California’s Valle de Trinidad. Three friends and I were down there investigating a possible condor sighting that had come to the attention of the San Diego Zoo. Reports of condor sightings in Southern California are common, and most often turn out to be either turkey vultures or swamp gas. In early April, a letter had arrived at the zoo, handwritten in pencil on a paper sack – in formal Castilian Spanish – from a person identifying himself as Rosaldo Lopez Renterria, an itinerant pastor at an unspecified church in the Valle de Trinidad. He described sightings of three or four large birds, white under the wings, with wingspans of up to three meters, and asked the zoo’s help in identifying the creatures. The details fit the description of condors. A friend had obtained a copy of the letter, and together we went in search of this churchman.

We were startled to discover that the small settlement which didn’t have a gas station, had at least a dozen churches, including both Catholic and Pentecostal. And as we located each temple – more often than not just a shanty with a crude cross and hand-painted letters over the doorway – we learned that none of the preachers knew the pastor who had written to the zoo. Nor did they claim to know the name of the pastor at the next church down the dusty street. When we asked a store clerk why there were so many churches in such a small town, he laughed and said, “Because we sin a lot.”

Another preacher explained that most of the templos were established by Americans years ago when there was no Catholic church in the area. Many of the preachers had asked us what religion we were, as if there was some kind of religious tug-of-war under way in the town; they stood in the doorways of their small houses of worship, eager shepherds eyeing unbranded strays. When we finally found the Catholic church, with by far the largest congregation in town, the American priest was conducting la quincianera, a coming-out ceremony for a fifteen-year-old girl, and we didn’t stay around to talk with him. We went condor hunting further south. We didn’t find any, by the way.

In the same way that Americans presumed to impose a new spiritual order on the village of Lazaro Cardenas and ended up with empty churches, we have begun to impose a new physical order on the condor. And what will we end up with? Two zoos are attempting to mass-produce condor chicks deliberately dispossessed of a cultural memory that until April 19 extended back to the Pleistocene era. The captive breeding program hopes to begin its release of the young fledglings as early as 1990, without adult parents. The birds will be fed by keepers, using the condor puppets that fake the birds into believing humans aren’t involved. In their new special hatching range in the Los Padres National Forest, carrion will be laid out for the birds to eat. Bill Toone, who is a bird curator at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and in charge of that zoo’s condor breeding program, says the carrion may have to be placed on the range “forever.” So, radio-equipped birds, hatched in captivity, will be fed by their maker for the duration. This is saving the species?

Well, no, insists Dave DeSante, an ornithologist who has fought for years and failed to ensure that a dew wild condors were left in the wild so that the captive-bred birds would benefit from a cultural continuity with the species’ untamed past. “Taking all the condors from the wild was the worst thing they could have done,” remarks DeSante, who works at the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory near San Francisco. “They chose to remove the condors from danger, rather than remove the danger from the condors by taking steps to clean up their range. Nine years and $25 million after they started, nothing, absolutely nothing, has been done for the condor. The zoos are the insidious threat to endangered species. They’re DNA banks that can save species, while the animal’s ecosystem collapses.”

DeSante and conservation organizations, such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, argue that a species is not just an animal specimen but a product of the animal, its culture, and its ecosystem. These conservationists contend that the condor recovery team, a consortium of governmental and private agencies, opted to save the birds, rather than the range, a 50,000-square-mile tract of rugged country that extends in a horseshoe north from Ventura, along the coastal mountains up to Monterey on the west, and to the southern Sierra Nevadas on the east. This is the last claw-hold of the giant vulture, whose numbers had begun to plummet when the vast herds of grazing animals started disappearing from the area 10,000 years ago.

By the time organizations such as the Audubon Society grew concerned about saving the bird in the Thirties, there were only about sixty condors left. In recent decades, the scavengers had been succumbing mostly to mankind’s predations: the rifle, lead bullets (which poisoned them when they ate deer guts left behind by deer hunters), and poisons such as the rodenticide Compound 1080, supplied in large quantities to ranchers by county agriculture departments. (The condor range covered parts of nine counties then.) Some also may have died from eating dead coyotes, themselves poisoned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mike Wallace, co-director with Toone of the condor captive propagation program, pleads guilty to the charge of destroying the wild condor’s culture. “We don’t want them to forage in the old way,” he says. “Condors learn a system of foraging from other condors. They don’t instinctively know when or where carrion is likely to show up. The California condor had learned a very lethal foraging pattern, feeding on gut piles with lead bullet fragments in them. Condors need calcium, and they may search for bone chips. They may have selected these bullet fragments like pieces of bone. Breaking this pattern is a very refreshing thing. We’ll be redirecting their natural foraging behavior.”

To those who retort that this manipulation by man means the wild condor no longer exists, Wallace retorts, “There’s nothing natural in their feeding on our own garbage, our own refuse, as they were doing. They were eating deer killed by hunters or stockyard abortions or poisoned coyotes, all artificial kills. What’s natural about that?”

But Jesse Grantham, an Audubon Society biologist who was a prominent member of the condor recovery team (he currently oversees a bird preserve on the Texas gulf coast), says, “Taking all the condors, erasing their culture, and introducing them to a man-altered environment flies in the face of everything every biologist or ecologist stands for. They’re creating a new bird, rather than dealing with what was killing it. Anybody can save the animal, that’s no big challenge. But we shouldn’t think that this is the way to save endangered species. I’m surprised that so many people buy that. You don’t hear field biologists spouting that. You hear zoo people spout it.”

Mike Wallace figures that taking all the birds for the captive breeding program buys time in which to work toward cleaning up the condor range. Yet Dave DeSante, among others, scoffs at this. “To me, they aren’t condors if they’ve been separated from their cultural heritage,” he says. “They haven’t saved the condor, they’ve destroyed it. What a mockery we’ve made of the condor.” Conservationists contend that it will now be much more difficult to protect the condor range from the development pressures, such as oil and gas exploration, road building, wind farms, reservoir and quarry excavations, the conversion of open lands to farming and housing, and erections of power lines that were already squeezing the bird. And though much has been made of the federal government’s purchase (at a cost of $4.3 million) of the 11,000-acre Hudson Ranch, forty miles north of Ventura, to be used as a protected condor sanctuary, that land represents only a small fraction of the condor’s range. And besides, Wallace and Toone propose to release their first condors elsewhere, in the Los Padres National Forest. It will be many years before the new sanctuary sees condors.

“It wasn’t a clear choice between protecting the range versus protecting the bird,” explains Toone. “They need each other. We reached a point where we couldn’t have both in the short term. If we left the birds out there, they would have perished, they would have been extinct by next year. And if you lose the species, you lose the habitat. The San Joaquin kit fox can’t save it, the fringe-toed lizard can’t save it. Maybe the condor can. And if you save the habitat, you save everything in it. The only way the condor is going to win is if all these people quit fighting and start working together on preserving the range.”

Don’t bet the farm on that one. Studies, hearings, agreements, lawsuits, and shouting matches have marked the twilight of the condor’s time on earth, and the strife doesn’t seem to have abated. If, as Toone and Wallace suggest, other nations are closely observing the condor recovery project to use it as a model for saving other endangered animals, then species rescue work is one big global brawl, and we may be doing more harm than good to the animals themselves. Remarks Audubon’s Jesse Grantham, who witnessed the internal dynamics of the recovery team, “My feeling is, that the species could have been saved in the wild, except for the personality conflicts among the principals.”

Meanwhile, the experts calculate that between now and the dawn of the next century, a million species of plants and animals will have disappeared. Industrialized Southern California long ago displaced the condor at the top of the food chain. So what’s all the fuss about a ghoulish buzzard who’s outlived his ecological function?

“The condor isn’t out there in the wild anymore, and the world didn’t shudder to a stop,” says Toone. “But where do you draw the line? Birds are biological indicators (of ecological disaster). They die first. If you don’t draw the line at the condor, where do you?

“Man is in no position to judge whether any particular species is worth saving,” he continues. “You can’t raise yourself to the level of God. But zoos are dedicated to conserving nature, and we have limited capabilities. There are about 8,700 species of birds in the world, and a lot of them are in trouble. We can’t take them all on. But the condor is a flagship. It’s hard to get people fired up about the least Bell’s vireo, a great little bird that only numbers about 300, yet it’s holding up half a billion dollars in construction projects in the county right now, and more power to it. But the condor is mythical. People are fascinated by its size and repulsed because it eats dead things. It lives in remote areas in a vast range. Part of our job is education about disappearing species, and the condor buys us space on the front page of the Union, the London Times, the German newspapers. You can’t buy that kind of publicity. That’s what makes every dime worth it.”

So the argument goes, celebrity species, such as the condor, are symbols of our fading animal brethren and attract the money from federal and private institutions that fund the development of mechanistic saviors, such as bird-borne radio telemetry equipment and condor puppets. And the concomitant publicity only helps the other 394 species on the U.S. endangered species list, not to mention the zoos themselves. Surely it has occurred to some zoo officials that a pair of rare California condors might someday make nice bartering mates for a pair of pandas. In effect, we’re spending a lot of money and effort to save a symbol, rather than an ecologically significant animal.

The condor was a symbol of eternal life to the California Indians. When thunder clapped, it was attributed to the great “thunderbird,” the condor, which was celebrated in the rituals of many different tribes. But to the white man, the condor was a symbol of fear and loathing, reputed to snatch children and small animals from farms and to spread disease and ill omens. Condors were irresistible targets for Americans with guns, and their quills made perfect gold-dust containers during the California gold rush. The great vultures became perfect symbols of our modern fixations: death and money.

There were fewer than a hundred condors left when Carl Koford, with financial assistance from the National Audubon Society, began his landmark studies of the animal in the Forties. Koford, who died in 1979, was credited as the world’s primary expert on condors, and he vigorously protested plans for captive breeding of the condors. He believed that the best approach was to handle the birds as little as possible, outlaw Compound 1080 within the condor range, and put tighter controls on hunting in the area.

In the early Fifties, the San Diego Zoo obtained permission from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to capture a breeding pair of condors and begin a captive breeding program. The National Audubon Society, with Koford’s prodding, worked with other conservationists to block the permit. Then in 1976, the FWS, which was bound by the federal Endangered Species Act to try to save such animals, proposed another plan for captive propagation. This led to the formal agreement to save the condor, signed by FWS, the National Audubon Society, the California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Four pairs of breeding condors were to be trapped in the first two years, and the bulk of the population was to be left in the wild to help assimilate the captive-bred birds after their release. At this point, many skeptics forsaw the condor’s doom. “I said from the beginning that the instant they got a government agency involved, it would be the death of the condor. The wild condor is now extinct,” laments Guy McCaskie, a respected San Diego bird enthusiast who is well known throughout the state. McCaskie doesn’t believe any condor chicks will ever be released. “They grabbed all the birds, all the eggs. Everything they said they weren’t going to do, they did. Why should we believe them now?”

Steve Herman, a college professor from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, was head of the California Condor Advisory Committee to the state fish and game commission, starting in 1980. “In my view,” he says, “they wanted to cage all the condors all along. We fought battles and fought battles, arguing for a balanced approach of captive breeding, along with a permanent wild population. But since 1981, they’ve taken every hatchling and every egg.” Herman says he was told by Noel Snyder, the FWS biologist who was the first of a series of experts to come and go from the recovery project, that all the birds should be brought in from the wild. Eventually, Snyder’s convictions led to his departure from the program, for the official plan called for leaving some birds in the wild. But Snyder merely proved to be ahead of his time. As more birds and eggs were captured, the mortality rate of the birds remaining in the wild increased rapidly, and that became one of the compelling arguments for “rescuing” what was left of the population.

“The people behind this have the rainbow-trout mentality,” says Herman, whose advisory committee was disbanded in 1983. “They want to take them in, breed them in captivity, and release them. These are wildlife managers; they want to manage something. They can’t just leave things alone. They have to diddle around with things. It’s been a very, very sad situation. I knew Carl Koford, and he used to talk about guerilla ecology, doing something drastic to save species like the condor. He died in 1979, thoroughly convinced that my colleagues and I would protect the condor. And we failed in tat. It’s been a heavy burden to accept.”

Herman doesn’t buy the argument of those who cite recent high mortality rates to support their claims that if the birds are left alone, they all would have died. “One reasons the population took such a nose dive in 1985 was because there were no replacement birds – they were all in the zoos. They had taken all those young and all those eggs into captivity, and then they emphasized the mortality rate.”

The condor recovery experts had become alarmed when five birds mysteriously disappeared from the wild in late 1984 and early 1985. Although the biologists disagreed on how this event should alter the recovery plan, eventually the FWS and the state fish and game commission decided that the last five remaining wild condors should be found and brought into the zoos.

The Audubon Society filed a lawsuit and obtained a restraining order, blocking such a plan. Audubon leaders believed that without those wild condors, it would be impossible to persuade the federal government to go forward with the purchase of the Hudson Ranch for a condor sanctuary. They also argued that the absence of wild condors would make it more difficult to re-introduce young hatchlings to the wild. But on appeal by the FWS, the restraining order was soon lifted. The Hudson Ranch was purchased as a sanctuary, and now the Audubon Society is once again a cooperative player in the recovery project. “A lot of money was raised through the Audubon Society, with the understanding that condors would remain in the wild,” fumes Guy McCaskie. “I gave money myself, for nothing.”

In retrospect, it looks as though the unstated plan all along was to grab up all the birds for the zoos, but Bill Toone denies this. “We were committed to keeping a wild population, as long as it was biologically sound,” he explains. “We were not committed to responding to politics, so the recovery team often pissed people off. You don’t stick to a plan and ignore new information. They got new facts and changed their minds according to the new data.”

Minds were changed amid much dissent. “There were two groups of people,” Audubon’s Jesse Grantham explains. “There were the field biologists, who were not politicians, and the zoo people who are definitely politicians. The zoo people just want to see the animal alive. The biologists want to see it alive in its historical range. And there’s a missing link between those two groups. Now there’s virtually no contact between the people who were working with the condor in the field and the zoo people, who now have all of the animals. Which is why they’ve come up with this idea for a new kind of condor.”

None of the birds taken from the wild will ever be released again, says Toone. Instead, the fourteen males and thirteen females will form the nucleus of a permanent captive breeding colony, whose progeny will eventually be raised by humans in a protected portion of the Los Padres National Forest. “The secret to this genetic bottleneck is to make as many condors as you can, and quickly,” Toone says.

The condor release team, which will be directed by Toone and Mike Wallace, will first practice their techniques on young Andean condors. These birds have been successfully bred at the San Diego Zoo, and Wallace helped release some back into the Peruvian wilds in 1985. He says of the eleven released, seven survived and assimilated into the wild Andean condor population. The year-long permit process to release the Andean condors in the California habitat will start soon, says Toone.

The Andean birds may also help keep the research money from drying up while the captive California condors are encouraged to start bearing the new condor of the future. Having the Andean condors in the wild, even though they’re a different bird, is better than having no condors at all with which to try to protect the habitat in the years before the California condor is ready for its own debut. Toone downplays the fact that only captive-bred California condors, not their truly wild parents, will be released. “The wild condor is not dead,” he insists. “This bird’s been around a long time. One generation in captivity is not going to change it. They have innate, instinctual knowledge in their genes, and we aren’t going to change that. If we think we will, we’re giving ourselves far too much credit.”

To Dave DeSante, this is all nonsense. “We can’t teach them to be condors,” he says. “No one but their parents can teach them to be condors. And they aren’t condors if they’ve been removed from their cultural heritage.” DeSante is shocked at what has happened to the condor. “We never dreamed that they’d take all the birds,” he remarks. “A lot of it stems directly from greed. The condor range is worth trillions of dollars to developers. It was a calculated effort to get rid of these vultures that were in the way. And technology was going to save everything. It’s so arrogant of us. We have no right to squash any bit of life on the earth. I think the adult condors just finally gave up. Their spirit was broken. Every baby was taken, every egg was taken, every breeding pair was harassed. I think they just quit breeding.”

What a spectacle. The condor has provided the fulcrum for the seesaw battle of man versus nature, and now we’re going to end up with a twentieth-century solution, a compromise bird — new and improved! All you have to do is ignore the radio transmitters on both wings and the big tag with the number on it. And while you gaze in awe at the majestic condor of the future, try to forget that the bird isn’t searching for the carcass of a wild beast but for a pile of food laid out by wildlife managers in a safe spot. This is what the future holds for endangered species? Having tamed the wilderness, man now comes back with altered beasts and repopulates the forests to his specifications?

Here’s what we should have done with the condor: We should have left it alone to perish with its dignity and biological integrity intact. It would have been much more useful as a symbol of the dying planet and may have provided the impetus to save other, more ecologically significant species of animals or plants. Saving the condor was one stunt that should have been left untried.

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