Saturday, Dec. 8, 2007 | When the last California condor was taken into captivity in 1987, just 27 of the birds remained on the planet. The condor’s population had plummeted as the West began to develop. The scavenging birds were shot, their eggs were stolen, they were electrocuted by power lines and poisoned by lead in carrion — an issue that remains problematic.

In the years since, the birds have been bred in captivity and have slowly and steadily recovered. It has been a challenge. With no condors left in the wild, scientists had to not only breed the birds, they had to teach them how to be condors before being released. Today, the condor’s population is above 300, the result of a massive multi-agency effort organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Mike Wallace, a 57-year-old wildlife ecologist, serves as the team leader for the California Condor Recovery Team. sat down with Wallace, a conservation program manager at the San Diego Zoo, to talk about the condor’s prospects of surviving, the challenges the endangered bird still faces and the best place to see the birds in the wild.

Is the condor’s population out of the woods yet?

Yes. By captive breeding, we’ve taken the population from teetering on the brink of 27 birds in 1987 to now over 300 birds in existence. It’s emerging from the woods. We still have population levels we want to get to before we downlist it from endangered to threatened (under the federal Endangered Species Act).

That would be 450 birds. We’re at 300, so we’re getting there. We’d like to see three populations: two separate populations of 150 birds apiece in the wild: one in the Arizona, New Mexico, Utah area and one on the coast of California. And then 150 birds in captivity, which we could manage the breeding and production aspects. We’re doing a lot of heavy-handed management of the birds until we get them truly out of the woods and down to threatened status, which may happen — if we’re lucky, all things going well — in 2020.

Can you see a date or time at which you’re able to take your hands off and let the population sustain itself?

That’s a very good question. There’s an emotional side of scientists that we’d like to think that we could, at some point, take all the tags off, all the transmitters off, and let them be natural and be on their own. Unfortunately, I don’t know when that day would be. Because we have as humans so dominated the landscape for all the big animals — grizzly bears, bison, the wolves. They’re the hardest to fit in and around the landscape that we’ve changed.

We have a lot of investment in getting these birds back from the brink. It’s our responsibility to get them to a point that’s as close to self-sustaining as possible. That’s the goal: The least amount of management, the most self-sustainability they can achieve. When you look at the landscape and you see power lines everywhere, you see collision prospects, you still have a huge lead poisoning problem.

We know how to produce birds and get them out there. But they’re learning how to function as condors. Because all the traditions that condors need to be self-sustaining are non-existent. They have to create their own traditions. We have to manage them to make the right choices, to be in the right places. The old population already knew: Stay away from people, they’re bad news. We have to teach them that.

And there’s stuff we can’t possibly control, which has been a major issue in the past several weeks — with the food we buy to put out for the birds, to teach them how to forage. In the States, the condor program gets dairy-cow rejects. We get them free, as many as we want. Veal, basically. Perfect scenario. We don’t have that in Baja. So we have to buy animals that are debilitated. So we get word by radio if a dead horse just got hit by a car. We’re like scavengers ourselves, racing around to get this food.

But if someone shoots an animal in their backyard, hits it with a shotgun pellet, and that animal wanders off and becomes perfectly healthy — other than having all this lead through them — we buy this animal thinking it’s perfectly healthy. We use a metal detector, but stuff gets by us. We have half the population of Baja here right now for lead removal. We’re managing them by putting food out, but in some cases we have the challenge of making sure what we’re doing is correct as well. We got caught on this one. We just had to spend $50,000 for a digital X-Ray machine so we can make sure we’re not feeding them [lead-contaminated meat].

How much of what you do is biology and how much is behavioral psychology?

There are many aspects to putting the species back: The logistics of the permitting process, the psychology of people and politics, the structure of the landscape that allows us to manage the birds as they go out. We have to make sure that the birds here at the zoo are prepared psychologically from day one of hatching to be on the release track. Are you going to be a breeder and in captivity for the rest of your life because of your genetics? Or are you going to be a releasable bird?

In the early releases we did in the program, we were taking our best guess based on the Ph.D. work I’d done on Andean condors in South America. But it’s a different scenario there. There are mother birds to tutor them. Here, it’s a different story. There’s nobody out there to teach them what to do. We have to guess and form their opinions about life, about people, about how to find food and where they spend time — and what they do as a condor.

If you keep them in one spot, they get lazy and fat. They become vulnerable to predators. They’ve got all this time on their hands and they start getting into trouble, checking out all these interesting things in the environment, when they should be worrying about their next meal. It’s a lot of work. Because you have to manage for the least capable bird out there. They want to get into the hierarchy. But if you limit the food in any way, they’re the last to get fed. You have to check how they’re doing every day.

It’s interesting how you describe it — you’re not just keeping birds alive and expanding the population. You’re perpetuating what it means to be a condor.

A condor in the wild. And so you have to know what a wild condor should be like. It helped studying Andean condors. … My background, I’ve been interested in birds since I was 7, 8 years old. At 10 years old, I tricked my brothers into going up on a building in Maine in the snow. There were two kestrels roosting; we netted one and I had my first bird of prey. I’ve been a falconer ever since. What you realize through the different species you work with, trying to get them to be buddies with you, it’s the perfect preparation for the next step, working with condors. But they’re behind one-way mirrors. They can’t see you. You handle them at nighttime. They shouldn’t know we exist. They do know we exist, but they shouldn’t relate us to food. So you have to manage and manipulate these birds without them knowing that you are Oz behind the curtain, pulling the strings.

The last condor caught in the wild was named AC9 (adult condor 9). Another was named Condor 220. They’re very antiseptic names. Is that done for a reason?

In the early part of the program … we had a bunch of scientists working on them, and they just wanted to keep to the science involved. As soon as we brought all the birds into captivity, not everyone was happy with that. We went through a couple of court injunctions with environmental groups. The Native Americans got pulled into the drama. I was sitting in a bar one time, and I said: We have to get people behind us. This is the right thing to do, we’re saving the birds.

Native Americans have the birds carry their souls to the afterlife on the wings of the condor. So we appreciated their concerns. Over that beer, I said — ah! — let’s have them name the condors. So we went to the elders and had them list out all these Chumash (Indian) names. We handed the list to our keepers and picked out the ones we could pronounce. This was great. It got people involved. [But] as we started releasing birds, we started having mortality. One of the birds named by the Chumash died. The regional Fish and Wildlife Service director didn’t like the fact that … in his opinion, it was too personal.

Is there any sense that a recovery program like this sets a precedent for humans to think they can drive a species to the brink of extinction and we’ll always be able to swoop in and bring them back?

Unfortunately, for the naïve bureaucrat. I’ve been approached by lawyers for loggers in the Pacific Northwest, saying: Hey, can we just put a couple of spotted owls in captivity and breed them up? Would that work? There are people that would like to do that to their own advantage. But every species is different. If condors didn’t breed as easily as they do, we’d be sunk. They’d have gone extinct.

Tell me about the challenge of convincing people to use something other than lead-based ammunition.

People don’t like to change. Coming from a hunting background — I grew up in Maine — I asked my brothers and cousins and uncles. I said, you know, if you had California condors here in Maine, and the legislature was asking you to go with non-lead bullets, (would you do it?) I found my clan back in the East, they were reasonable. But when you talk to people out here and they’ve always got legislation hitting them, and they feel their right to hunt has been chipped away.

The answer is different out here. They’ve very suspicious and cautious. Once you explain to them that this is really the problem, that the science is behind it, once they understand it — which has been hard, because lobbyists have tried to subdue the information — then they usually ask the question: What can we do to help?

Five or 10 years ago, we didn’t have viable alternatives to lead bullets. But now we have bullets made in all of the caliber ranges at a reasonable price. Ballistically they’re better, they shoot truer. If you want to shoot at a range, use your lead stuff, because it’s contained. But when you go hunting, use the premium bullet. Use the best bullet.

The condor sighting over Rancho Cuyamaca last year was the first in San Diego County since 1910. What’s the significance of that?

We’re going to have a lot of breakthroughs as the birds move north. That was Condor 321, a female. We followed her on her GPS up through the Sierra San Pedro, through the Sierra Juarez and into Anza-Borrego. She was around for about a day-and-a-half. I was giving an interview here, talking to people who said: Can you show us where on the map the bird is? It doesn’t quite work that way, the bird’s always moving. But I said it’s out in Anza-Borrego. And they all rushed off. I got the information back, and when I was giving that wrong information, she was sitting back 150 miles south feeding on a carcass we’d put out. She’d moved that fast in half a day. She came and went. She came and looked around: “No condors here. I’m going home.” But they’ll be doing that, coming up and investigating, coming up as a group.

Is there a place where you recommend for birdwatchers to go if they want to see the condors?

Yes. Guaranteed spotting, Grand Canyon South Rim. Guaranteed, these days. There are always four to fourteen birds flying around. Spend a couple of days. And you’ve got interpreters right there who can tell you the history of the bird, who can tell you all of the background about that particular group up there.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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