Thursday, December 19, 2002
Photos: Dave Monley--A Feeling of Release: The Ventana Wilderness Association held an auction this year to allow members of the public to spring seven condors-whose wingspans measure up to ten feet.
Organizers and participants agreed that "perfect" was the word to describe the day. The sun was shining over the Pacific, the weather was unseasonably warm, and a steady breeze provided just the right amount of lift. Members of the wild flock of condors, more than 100 people, and a school of 1,000 dolphins just offshore all witnessed the release of a new batch of condors at Big Sur.
On Thursday, Dec. 12, seven of the largest land birds in North America were set free by the winners of an auction held by the Ventana Wilderness Society (VWS). The birds were bred in the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos, then kept in a flight pen in Big Sur for a year prior to release.
"It was the best release we''ve ever had," said Sal Lucido, executive vice president of Ventana Wilderness Society, a non-profit organization that has been releasing condors in Big Sur since 1997. "Everything was perfect. We couldn''t have asked for anything more."
Once the birds are out, however, things are far from perfect.
Scientists have confirmed the death of five condors from lead poisoning since 2000. Biologists say that 14 more would have died from the neurotoxin if not for emergency intervention.
Lead poisoning is striking at an alarming rate, considering there are only 74 free flying condors in the world.
Since early November, 10 of the endangered birds have been treated for lead poisoning. In the last six months seven condors-the same number that were released last week-have died. Causes of death included lead poisoning and electrocution, while copper poisoning and ingesting human trash were also suspected reasons for death.
Still, condor numbers are increasing.
"We''re now monitoring more birds in Big Sur than there were in the world just 20 years ago," said Lucido, who co-founded the VWS 25 years ago. "You almost have to pinch yourself."
Condors once numbered in the thousands, but most of them had died off by the 1970s, due to human encroachment, shooting and poisoning. Biologists captured the remaining wild condors in 1987 and started breeding them in captivity. They''ve been reintroducing the recovering species since 1992.
After last week''s release, there are now a total of 74 birds in the wild-43 in California and 31 in Arizona. An additional 124 birds are in captive breeding programs or awaiting release, bringing the world population to 198.
Free At Last
"It went better than I ever thought it would," said Joe Burnett, Ventana''s condor field coordinator of the public release.
"It was great to see people''s reactions," Burnett said. "One group cried. Another group hugged. They were all in the moment. It reminds you what its all about."
Among the auction winners were three children and young adults from Recruitment in Science Education (RISE), Community Partnerships for Youth, and the Rancho Natividad Silver Star Youth Program.
Fernando Curiel, 13, an 8th grader from Salinas was selected, based on an essay competition, to represent RISE in the release.
"It was bad!" said Curiel. "It was really exciting. I had this long stick and when they said OK I pulled the door open and my condor shot right out."
Such a close encounter with one of the world''s largest birds seems to have left a mark on Curiel. "You could hear its wings flapping. It was really loud."
"It was also pretty scary," Curiel said of the vulture, whose nine-and-a-half-foot wingspan is twice Curiel''s height. "It looked like the bird was going to take my eyes out."
Remarking on the scavenger''s distinctive odor and appearance, Curiel said, "my condor smelled awful. It smelled like carcass. It was ugly, but it was still cool."
Curiel''s winning essay was titled "When Birds Can Fly." Talking about his essay, Curiel said, "if [the condor] becomes extinct people will only be able to see fossils of the birds. If people don''t help them, they will all die."
Curiel, who has raised seven species of birds at home-including quail, cockatoos, parakeets, and chicken-says one day he would like to be a veterinarian.
"Letting these kids get involved in releasing these birds is great," said Don Sterner, lead bird keeper at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. "These kids here today will be the conservationists of tomorrow."
Of the seven birds released, four were hatched at the Wild Animal Park. Bird 236, the last bird released on the Dec. 12, was the 100th bird raised in captivity at the Park.
"You think of 100 birds and you think of all the things that have gone wrong in the past. It has taken a lot of years of hard work to get to this point today," Sterner said.
Since 1999, Marylise Lefevre has been in charge of each group of fledglings released in Big Sur. "I feel like it''s an achievement to see each group through," she says. "I really believe the birds can make it."
Lefevre and fellow Ventana crewmembers are a dedicated team. A typical work schedule includes observing the birds from cold dark blinds by day and hiking frozen calf carcasses, condor food, onto mountain slopes at night. On the night of the 11th, after the condors were transferred in large dog kennels to the release site, Lefevre and former Ventana Field Assistant Jessica Steffen had an additional task. The two biologists slept next to the kennels all night to ensure the birds'' safety from predators.
Get the Lead Out
"Birds are dying," Lefevre said of recent losses to electrocution and lead poisoning. "The deaths show there are problems in the environment. Some think [saving the condor] is a lost cause, but I think we need to try."
Incidents of lead poisoning are on the rise. During deer-hunting season this fall, birds at all three release sites were significantly affected by lead.
On Nov. 12, at the Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge in Ventura County, an adult condor known as AC-8 registered blood lead levels that maxed-out field test kits. The bird was rushed to the Los Angeles Zoo, where a metal fragment was discovered in her digestive system.
AC-8, one of the last original wild condors captured in the 1980s, was suffering from acute lead poisoning. Lead paralyzes the digestive tract when ingested, causing condors and other avian species to starve to death.
"I don''t think she would have survived if she wasn''t treated," said L.A. Zoo Veterinarian Cynthia Stringfield.
As AC-8''s lead levels continued to climb, zoo staff chemically treated the endangered bird with injections twice daily. After a month of force-feeding, AC-8 is slowly beginning to feed on her own again. The piece of metal found in her digestive system is currently under analysis but was most likely a bullet fragment.
Routine testing in Big Sur on October 27 revealed eight out of nine birds tested had elevated lead levels. While seven of the birds'' levels were low enough to allow their immediate release, one of the birds, Condor 199, had to be held in captivity for a month before his condition improved.
In August a member of the Arizona flock, Condor 240, died of lead poisoning after ingesting multiple lead bullet fragments.
Routine testing from early Nov. to early Dec. showed 11 out of 29 birds tested in Arizona registered significantly elevated levels of lead in their blood. Nine birds had to be chemically treated for one week before their lead levels subsided. Toxicity in the birds coincided with local deer hunting season on the Kaibab Plateau.
Lead isn''t only a problem for condors. "There are a number of other species affected including bald eagles, golden eagles, swans, loons as well as a large number of ducks," said Patrick Redig, director of University of Minnesota''s Raptor Center.
"Twenty percent of the roughly 100 eagles we treat each year have lead poisoning," Redig, who has been studying lead in eagles since the 1970s, said.
Political Stalling Pattern
Acutely aware of the threat lead poses to condors and other wildlife, release crews are engaged in a highly intensive management program to keep the birds as ''lead-free'' as possible. Biologists at all three release sites provide the birds with a year-round ''clean'' food source-stillborn calves collected from local dairies.
Scientists also conduct intensive monitoring of every bird released into the wild. The effort utilizes satellite technology, radio telemetry and aerial tracking flights over the condors'' range to locate released birds and observe their condition. Regular physical examinations, blood tests, holding birds in captivity and, in worst-case scenarios, chemical treatments also help keep the birds alive.
While great efforts are being made to mitigate the threat of lead, little has been done to solve the problem. As releases and intensive management continue, critics say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is avoiding the issue.
"When you reintroduce an animal, you have to solve the factors that caused their extirpation. If not, you will never have a self-sustaining population," said Noel Snyder, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who oversaw the condor program from 1980 to 1986.
"We knew [about lead] 18 to 20 years ago. Why are we debating it now? I do not think the condor program should be a put-and-take operation. I don''t think that''s a justifiable program. Something needs to be done with the lead issue-something more than subsidy."
Bruce Palmer, California condor recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledged the need for change.
"We can''t maintain this [intensive management] forever, by any means. We''re coming close to the limits of field management."
Palmer, however, defended the need to continue releasing birds in the current environment.
"If we move to hold birds back until the lead issue is resolved, the issue would probably never be resolved," Palmer said. "If we hold birds back we lose some of their wild edge. We risk the ultimate chance of success."
"It''s a tough balance, no doubt about it. It may be a while before the issue is resolved, but we will still have condors and they will still be wild. We have to keep focused on the long-term result."
In March of 2001, the California Condor Recovery Team, an advisory group of experts that provides recommendations to the Fish and Wildlife Service, submitted a resolution urging the Service to act on the lead issue.
Several acute poisonings, one death, and almost two years later the Service has yet to act. "We''ve taken the information from recent poisonings and are considering what to do next," said Miel Corbett, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service''s endangered species program manager in Sacramento. "Right now the [Recovery Team] resolution is still in internal discussion."
Hunt and Peck
While discussions continue, the current condor project-including captive breeding programs, release sites and intensive field management programs-moves on at a cost of $2 million per year.
While the lead issue appears to be weighted down at an agency level, an unexpected coalition of conservationists and hunters is beginning to take the lead. The collaborative effort, while still forming, is loosely known as Project Gut Pile. Members of the unofficial organization include Jim Matthews, editor of California Hog Hunter, Anthony Prieto, a hunter and avid condor watcher, and the Ventana Wilderness Society.
Matthews, who coined the term "Project Gut Pile," has hunted pigs and other big game near his home in San Bernardino for close to 40 years. As incidents of lead poisoning in condors and other wildlife increases, Matthews fears the negative repercussions of a sweeping ban on all toxic ammunition. "If we ban all toxic substances it would be a death- blow to hunting. It would be so expensive that we would lose a lot of people," Matthews said.
Prieto first saw a condor in 1979 at the LA Zoo. "To see one live in person was mind blowing," Prieto said. As a hunter he feels it is his duty to help protect the birds. "I will always hunt; I love everything about it," Prieto said. "But, we are the ones who put birds in this perilous state. I think it''s our responsibility to get them out of it."
Well aware of the threat lead poses to condors and other wildlife, Ventana Wilderness Society has undertaken a multidimensional campaign to reduce the risks. The organization has targeted local hunting groups, sporting goods stores, gun clubs and government agencies in a region-wide lead awareness effort that encourages non-lead ammunition alternatives.
Members of Project Gut Pile encourage hunters to use non-lead ammunition or to bury the discarded portions, (the "gut piles") of their game to discourage scavengers. The goal is to let hunters solve the lead problem on their own, without having to impose regulations.
Two ''condor safe'' alternatives to standard lead bullets, the Barnes X-bullet and Winchester''s Failsafe bullet, are also currently available. Both cost more than standard ammunition.
Some say the lighter density of the all-copper X-bullet gives it a lower kill capacity. And copper, while not as bad as lead, is still a toxic substance. What makes Barnes X and Failsafe a valuable alternative is that they don''t leave residue like standard lead ammunition. According to Matthews, lead bullets fragment into tiny particles leaving between 30 and 70 percent of its mass as residue in the bullet channel. Copper, according to Matthews, passes through an animal with very little fragmenting.
While there are currently no truly non-toxic bullets on the market, new composites of tungsten and tin are in the works. The new ammunition, however, may be a long way off and may be cost-prohibitive for many hunters.
Matthews doesn''t see any reason to wait for expensive non-toxic alternatives.
"With a good public relations operation we can solve the problem tomorrow," Matthews said. "You tell hunters to bury gut piles, they''ll do it. You tell them to shoot premium ammunition, they''ll do that."
"The next five years are going to be real critical," Prieto said of the condor project. "If we can remove lead from the environment the future looks really good. If not, we''re just climbing a greased pole."