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.
“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."
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
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
“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.
IN OUR HANDS
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.”
Jonathan Hall looks out at the landscape surrounding Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.
“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?’”