Conservation Challenges

Endangered California Condor Fighting for its Life

Posted at 5:06 pm March 13, 2009 by admin

Lead Poisoned and Gunshot:
Central Coast Condor Emblematic of Current Impediments to Recovery

March 13, 2009
Although they are one of the most endangered birds on the planet, California condors are still facing avoidable threats to their survival.  As a case in point, as one California condor began emergency treatment for lead poisoning, it was discovered the bird also had shotgun pellets embedded in his body from a gunshot wound.  Currently, the bird is fighting for his life at the Los Angeles Zoo.

During the week of January 21, condor No. 286 (all California condors are assigned a studbook number), a nearly 7-year-old male, went from being high in the pecking order of the central California coast condor flock to getting pushed around by much younger, less dominant birds.  When 286 went from making courtship displays to female condors to getting beat up by adolescent birds, wildlife biologists from Pinnacles National Monument and Ventana Wildlife Society knew something wasn’t right. A sudden shift in behavior by 286 was an indication the bird may have health problems.

“We had been trying to capture him since late January because of signs of weakness and poor health,” said Joe Burnett Ventana Wildlife Society biologist. Upon capture on March 4, biologists noted the condor was wobbly on his feet.  Testing revealed a high lead level in his blood, indicating potentially fatal lead exposure.  Condor biologists immediately transferred the bird to the Los Angeles Zoo for lead poisoning treatment.

To see photos of this condor visit

While at the Zoo, 286 was radiographed and the shotgun pellets were discovered.  Once lead treatment has been completed, Zoo veterinarians plan to extract the pellets to determine the type of ammunition.

“We are extremely grateful the bird is still alive, but dismayed this innocent condor was both lead poisoned and gunshot,” said Kelly Sorenson, Ventana Wildlife Society executive director.

“Whoever shot the condor should not be seen as a representative of the hunting community.  No self-respecting hunter would do this,” said Jerry Marquez, a central California hunter.  “The average hunter is conservation minded and wants to preserve the resource for future generations, not destroy it.  Shooting the condor was an act of pure stupidity.”

The act of harming an endangered species is also a federal felony. Condor 286’s injuries and resulting removal from the wild were a significant setback in achieving the goal of establishing breeding pairs of condors in the wild.  Reproduction of wild offspring is a necessary step toward removing condors from the Endangered Species List.

“We were anticipating a breeding attempt by condor 286 this year, so this unfortunate event is a real setback to the flock,” said Sorenson.

While unrelated to the shotgun pellets, condor 286’s lead exposure may have occurred from ingestion of lead bullet fragments found in animal carcasses or gut piles.  Condors are scavengers, only eating dead animals.  In July 2008, California changed hunting regulations to require hunters in the condor’s range to use only non-lead ammunition.  Information on the new regulations can be found on the California Department of Fish and Game’s website at:

Condor biologists see ranching and big game hunting as critical to the survival of the endangered birds.

“Open space with an occasional dead large mammal is the kind of landscape condors live in,” said Daniel George, condor program manager at Pinnacles National Monument.  “Ranchers and hunters that use non-lead ammunition play a key role in maintaining a healthy landscape for condors and other wildlife.”

“The plight of condor 286 illustrates the California condor’s continued struggle for survival,” said Jesse Grantham, California Condor Recovery Program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  “We need to continue to focus on sources of lead in the environment and eliminate that threat to both humans and wildlife.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the lead federal partner in the multi-agency California Condor Recovery Program.  Release programs are located in Central and Southern California, Baja California, Mexico, and Arizona.  Currently, California is home to two separate California condor flocks.  The central coast flock, located around Big Sur and Pinnacles National Monument, and the Southern California flock, located in and around the Los Padres National Forest, north of Los Angeles and east of Ventura.

Ventana Wildlife Society: In California alone there are 130 species of animals in the wild threatened or endangered with extinction. Ventana Wildlife Society is committed to conserving native wildlife and their habitats. Ventana Wildlife Society released 70 Bald Eagles to central California in the 1980’s and 90’s and began reintroducing California Condors in 1997. Rather than dwelling on past mistakes that brought many of our wild animals to the brink, we focus on the present. We recover individual species and track the populations of many others so that conservation can be timely as well as effective. Focusing on youth education, we better ensure that future generations have the willingness and capacity to help wildlife. Our vision is to have a society who cares for and supports wildlife across the planet, particularly in California. Online at
Kelly Sorenson,
Ventana Wildlife Society, 831-455-9514

Proceedings from conference available online

Posted at 3:19 pm March 12, 2009 by admin

Now available online: “Ingestion of Lead from Spent Ammunition: Implications for Wildlife and Humans”

BOISE, Idaho — Research on the effects and risks of lead exposure from spent bullet fragments and shot is now available online.

The documents are proceedings from the conference, “Ingestion of Lead from Spent Ammunition: Implications for Wildlife and Humans,” convened May 12-15, 2008, by The Peregrine Fund, Boise State University, Tufts Center for Conservation Medicine, and the US Geological Survey. The conference for the first time brought together professionals in wildlife and human health to share information on the toxic effects of this source of lead contamination.

Conference attendees offered a relatively easy solution: switch to non-lead bullets and shot.  Such ammunition is available in most popular calibers and is considered by many hunters to be as good as or better than traditional lead ammunition.  Experts said manufacturers will respond to demand, thus solving the problem.

Individual papers may be downloaded at:

An overwhelming weight of evidence presented at the conference shows that:

·        Lead is toxic. It sickens and can kill at high levels of exposure, but even near the lowest detectable levels, lead has measurable health effects, including reduced IQ in children and increased risk of death from heart attack and stroke in adults.

·        Lead from spent ammunition gets into people who eat game harvested with lead bullets or shot, with clinical effects among subsistence hunters.  Effects among recreational hunters have not been adequately studied.

·        Lead from spent ammunition gets into a wide variety of wildlife, including doves, swans, eagles, condors, and mammalian scavengers, regularly sickening and killing some.

·        Non-lead bullets and shot are available as an alternative to lead for most uses.

The roughly 400 pages of the proceedings consist of more than 60 contributions from scientists and professionals in the fields of wildlife, health, and shooting sports. The conference documented evidence from around the world of:

·        Effects of lead poisoning on wildlife that consume lead bullet fragments or lead shot when they forage.

·        Lead exposure in people who eat game harvested with lead-based bullets or shot.

·        Effects of lead on human health at minute levels that were formerly thought benign and currently are not recognized by many health agencies.

·        Lead bullet fragmentation in game meat, extent of contamination of game meat from bullet fragments, and the potential for human exposure to lead from this source.

·        Solutions to the problem of lead exposure from bullet fragments in both wildlife and people, with practical examples from Arizona and California where voluntary and legislative measures have been implemented on behalf of the California condor, and from Germany and Japan on behalf of sea-eagles and human health concerns.

·        Exposure to lead from other sources including fishing tackle, paints, and ceramics having significant negative health effects on wildlife and people.

The Peregrine Fund, a conservation group for birds of prey, convened the conference after a decade of research on wild California condors in the Grand Canyon region of Arizona revealed that lead exposure from spent ammunition is the most important factor impeding the full recovery of the species in the area.  The research also suggested that lead from spent ammunition could be a concern to people who eat game harvested with lead bullets or shot shells.

Efforts by the Arizona Game and Fish Department to encourage hunters to voluntarily reduce lead exposure of condors influenced 90 percent of hunters in the 2008 hunting season to use solid copper bullets as an alternative to lead-based ammunition or remove all remains of their harvest from the landscape.  As a result, no condors died from lead poisoning this season.

“If this result can be achieved throughout the condor’s range, our data shows that condors could survive in the wild without the intensive and expensive management needed now to combat lead poisoning,” said Dr. Grainger Hunt, a scientist for The Peregrine Fund and contributor to the conference proceedings.

Lead Claims Another Condor

Posted at 4:34 pm October 1, 2008 by Yadira Galindo

Condor No. 336 died of lead poisoning in September despite the efforts of wildlife biologists to save the 4-year-old bird. The loss of this bird to lead poisoning is tragic as she was just about to reach breeding age. The loss of even one California condor, when the population is just a little more than 330 birds, is devastating to the California Condor Recovery Program.

Wild Condors Recover

Posted at 1:12 pm September 26, 2008 by Yadira Galindo

Although two birds were lost during the summer wildfires in Big Sur, California, the rest of the birds survived and are being closely monitored by biologists with the Ventana Wildlife Society.

San Diego Zoo Donates to Condor Partner

Posted at 2:10 pm August 27, 2008 by Karyl Carmignani

The San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park curator of birds delivered a $10,000 check to aid the Ventana Wildlife Society in its recovery from a devastating wildfire. A California condor formerly from the Wild Animal Park was lost in the fire.

“The Ventana Wildlife Society is one of our partners in the conservation of the California condor,” said Michael Mace, Wild Animal Park curator of birds. “To date, the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park has sent 34 condors for release to the condor sanctuary in Big Sur. Ventana’s success is as important as our success in reestablishing this critically endangered species in California.” (more…)

Searching for Condors in Big Sur - Part I

Posted at 2:26 pm August 26, 2008 by Yadira Galindo

Is that a condor?

After weeks of waiting for the right moment, I organized a trip to the Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor sanctuary with a photographer, videographer, and the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park curator of birds, Michael Mace. I wanted to see for myself the damage caused by the Big Sur wildfires in June, while Michael wanted to hand-deliver a $10,000 check from the San Diego Zoo’s California Condor Fire Relief fund to the Ventana Wildlife Society.

On a Wing and a Prayer

Posted at 12:05 pm July 30, 2008 by Karyl Carmignani

With a wingspan of up to 9 1/2 feet and its penchant for soaring, there is no denying the majesty and grace of the California condor. They are symbolic of the San Diego Zoo’s conservation efforts and bi-national partnerships. Soaring silently over the landscape, condors remind us of the profound beauty and wildness in nature. They show us how human activities can quickly eliminate a species, but drastic science-based collaborations can help to bring them back from the abyss of extinction.

Big Sur Survives Big Fire

Posted at 11:39 am July 30, 2008 by Karyl Carmignani

The Ventana Wildlife Society’s Condor Sanctuary, where seven young condors were awaiting release into the wild, was severely damaged by raging wildfires in June. Fortunately, staff scientists were able to evacuate the young birds along with their “mentor” condor before the flames swept through, but they lost all of the field pens in Big Sur for releasing the young condors along with important equipment. Biologists have been able to track the radio signals from all but one of the 43 free-flying adult condors in the central California region. Two nests that were near the blaze fared well, while one nest in a burned area was scorched and the fate of the chick is unknown.

Ventana Wildlife Society is nonprofit organization dedicated to releasing and managing condors in California. They need your help to rebuild the field pens and other structures that were lost in the fire. You can make a donation by visiting their Web site at or call toll-free 877-897-7740. Help the condors rise again!

Condor Emergency Fund Appeal

Posted at 7:05 am July 16, 2008 by admin

Lightening struck Big Sur on June 21 and ignited several wildfires in the Ventana wilderness that combined to become the Basin Complex Fires. Within 24 hours the wildfire cutoff the only access road to the Ventana Wildlife Society’s Condor Sanctuary where seven young condors, awaiting their release to the wild, and their adult “mentor” condor were being held in a remote field pen. The fire grew so rapidly that the US Coast Guard was called in for an emergency rescue by helicopter. Fortunately, all captive condors and staff scientists were evacuated just before the fire grew stronger and burned through the area.

Genetic Diversity Among California Condors

Posted at 3:22 pm April 22, 2008 by admin

The California Condor Recovery Program’s breeding efforts began with approximately 20 birds. Genetic diversity was immediately a concern. A reader recently asked:

Since the current population of 300 birds has, over a period of about twenty years, grown from a collection of approximately twenty individuals, how is the resultant lack of genetic diversity going to affect this new population? And, are the birds that have been introduced to the wild reproducing at a population-sustainable rate.