The growing numbers of captive birds worried the scientists. How were they going to return the birds to their natural surroundings? With so few California condors left, it seemed dangerous to risk releasing them without a careful plan. The solution was to try a "dry run" with the California condor's close cousin, the Andean condor. For three years, ornithologists observed what challenges the Andean condors met after being released, and used the data they collected to improve conditions in the designated release areas.
Finally, biologists had bred and raised enough California condors in captivity to risk releasing some into the wild. The first release was in 1992, with only two chicks. The Andean condors were released as well, this time to provide the California condors with the social interaction the birds need. When more California condors were released, all the Andean condors were captured and returned to the high mountains of South America.
Andean condor, a close cousin to the California condor. Courtesy Dr. Glenn Ingles, California Academy of Sciences
A decade later, dozens of birds have been released by the handful into remote and protected areas of California. The government bought land around the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, where the public is not allowed within 1.5 miles of the sanctuary. Other release areas, near the San Rafael Wilderness and in a remote area of the Los Padres National Forest, are also protected. The sites are on public lands in the original condor habitat, and contain many traditional nests and roosts. The captive-bred condors had never seen the nests or roosts before, but recognized their suitability immediately.
The project suffered plenty of setbacks. One bird drank antifreeze while others were killed by coyotes, or eagles. Some flew into power lines. Some just liked people too much and had to be recaptured so they wouldn't pass on their bad habits. But the people trying to save the condors persevered, and the wild populations grew, slowly but surely.
condors waiting for release into the Ventana Wilderness, California Courtesy Terrafocus Condor Cam
New Hope for the California Condor
The biggest remaining challenge was to prevent inbreeding by keeping the gene pool as diverse as possible. The biologists in charge of breeding kept careful records of which birds mated with which and what happened to their offspring. The next step was to establish a population far enough away from the California birds that the two groups could not breed together. Working with several state and federal agencies and with communities in southern Utah, the Fish and Wildlife Service finally chose the Vermilion Cliffs of northern Arizona as a suitable site for the second population.
The Fish and Wildlife Service began releasing condors into what has since become the Paria Canyon -Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, in 1996. There is no historical record of condors living here, but the birds have thrived. Condor pairs have successfully bred, although no wild-born chicks have hatched yet. Today, there are more condors living in Arizona then there were living anywhere in the world in 1984.
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Courtesy Bureau of Land Management, Arizona State Office
The best sign of hope for the condors is just a handful of fluff. The first wild-born California condor hatched on April 11, 2002, in Mount Hopper National Wildlife Refuge, home to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. This is the first time a pair of condors has laid an egg, incubated it, and hatched it in the wild since 1984, before all the birds were captured. Parents and chick are doing well, and biologists, environmentalists, and bird lovers everywhere are celebrating the teamwork that is helping to save this majestic animal.
Condors are on the road to recovery, but where does it end? In this case, the Fish and Wildlife Service has defined recovery as two wild populations and one captive population of 150 birds each, containing at least 15 breeding pairs per population. The agencies working on this project estimate this will happen by 2010.
Paria Canyon Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, in northern Arizona Courtesy Bureau of Land Management, Arizona State Office
American Frontiers trekkers visited the condor release site in Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness September 4, 2001. Read about it at the American Frontiers website. Read the diaries here (opens a new window) >