The California coast attracts visitors not only for the aesthetically pleasing ocean views, but also for the glimpse of a bird that puts vultures to shame: the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). Although spotting North America’s largest land bird is still a rare occurrence, the chances of seeing this critically endangered bird today are much greater than they were 30 years ago. Policy and education play a role, but a series of unusual partnerships may be to thank for the miraculous recovery of a species that has gained conservation fame. The successful reintroduction of the bird with a three metre wingspan can serve as a lesson for the future of rewilding in Europe.
California Condors once spread their wings across much of North America. Their notable population plummet landed them on the first ever United States Federal Endangered Species List in 19671, but the population continued to drop and the remaining 22 individuals were removed from the wild in 19822. Recovery is a slow and arduous process, but thanks to captive breeding programs and reintroduction efforts, the population has risen to just under 450 individuals, with about 60 percent of the population flying free in Mexico, California, the Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park. Despite lead poisoning from bullets still challenging recovery today, 2015 is viewed as a milestone in the condor community; it was the first year since reintroductions began that more wild California Condors hatched than died.
The success of the condor recovery program is primarily due to a number of strong, yet unusual, friendships. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service partnered with a group of NGOs and multiple zoos in the Western US to help rebuild the population. The union of zoos, NGOs, and the government seems standard, but the backing of some generous local citizens might come as a surprise. The Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) was one such NGO that took on the challenge of reintroductions along the central California coast. Sal Lucido, a founding member of VWS, donated prime ocean view real estate to the cause. Now retired, Sal receives no income from transforming his property into a condor haven. Perhaps inspired by Sal’s generosity, another donor, who wishes to stay anonymous, gave a substantial amount of private land to extend the central coastal range towards Los Angeles. The nameless benefactor not only contributed prime condor habitat but also internship stipends, a cabin to house said interns, and financed the technological upgrade of condor monitoring by purchasing GPS transmitters for each condor released on their property. What motivated Sal and the secretive donor? Perhaps a love for the return of the colossal condor to the California skies outweighs the economic incentive of using their land for the hottest Airbnb. Whatever the reason, the condor recovery team would struggle without their generosity.
VENTANA WILDLIFE SOCIETY’S VIDEO TITLED “HOW VWS GOT STARTED”, 2013
Even more unexpected than the relationship with local citizens is the partnership with the cattle industry. Excusing the ill-timed idiom, partnering with some of the many dairy farms in California kills two birds with one stone. US cattle farms experience a 6-8 percent calf mortality rate3, meaning central California has an abundance of dead cows. Removing the dead requires time and money, creating an incentive for farmers to seek an alternate removal method. This is where the condor steps in. Because condors struggle finding enough dead elephant seals to sustain the population and lead bullet fragments easily find their way into the condor’s diet of rodents shot by farmers and dead deer unclaimed by hunters, biologists need to provide condors with a safe food source to aid population recovery. The many dairy and cattle farmers in California are key to a win-win solution. Wildlife biologists remove deceased calves at no cost to the farmers and the condors are provided with a constant, safe food source. There are so many hapless calves that much of an internship with condor conservation entails the transportation of dead cows from farms to storage freezers to condor feeding sites. Tourists hoping to see a condor along California’s Highway One may just be lucky enough to spot interns on their way to deliver a tasty meal.
Partnerships, no matter how unanticipated, are key to species recovery. Proponents of rewilding Europe should draw from the condor experience by thinking outside of the box to make financial sense of this contemporary conservation strategy. Sir Charles Burrell, of Knepp Castle Estate, is just one instance of a prominent citizen becoming involved in this conservation movement. More Europeans should draw on the condor example to see what can occur when capital is donated: once locally extinct birds flying free in their backyards.
Rewilding Europe could mean Bearded Vultures (Gypaetus barbatus) once again populating the skies of Western Europe. Rewilding NGOs could take inspiration from the California Condor’s unusual partnerships and turn to local cattle ranchers and dairy farmers to provide a cheap food source to sustain the reintroduced scavengers. Vulture rewilding programs might even consider the Tauros, a new breed of cow that aims to revive the extinct Auroch, as an unexpected project partner. Despite the genetic engineering, the Tauros is still considered a cow, meaning disposal of the dead must follow Health and Safety rules. Instead of spending those hard-earned rewilding funds on abiding by regulation, why not follow the condor example and put those carcasses to good use? This potential partnership would save both Tauros and vulture management groups money. Perhaps one day, with a harmonious string of partnerships inspired by the California Condor, Europe will once again become wild.
- US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1984. Revised California condor recovery plan. US Department of Interior, Portland OR.
- Bakker, V.J., Smith, D.R., Copeland, H., Brandt, J., Wolstenholme, R., Burnett, J., Kirkland, S. and Finkelstein, M.E., 2017. Effects of Lead Exposure, Flock Behavior, and Management Actions on the Survival of California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus). EcoHealth, 14(1), pp.92-105.
- Jorgensen, M.W., Adams-Progar, A., de Passillé, A.M., Rushen, J., Salfer, J.A. and Endres, M.I., 2017. Mortality and health treatment rates of dairy calves in automated milk feeding systems in the Upper Midwest of the United States. Journal of Dairy Science, 100(11), pp.9186-9193.