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Editorial: California condors pass another milestone on the road to recovery

The LA Times logo The LA Times 7/12/2020 The Times Editorial Board
a close up of a bird flying in the air: A California condor takes off from a rock at Pinnacles National Park. (Kurt Moses) © (Kurt Moses) A California condor takes off from a rock at Pinnacles National Park. (Kurt Moses)

For a long time, the California condor seemed to be flying toward extinction. Remember when none of these scavengers remained in the wild in the late 1980s, the entire species dependent on a couple of dozen birds captured and shipped to a breeding program at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos? Goofy-looking condor puppets were created to feed the chicks and sometimes to raise them, that’s how desperate things got.

The fates of the earliest ones released to the California wild nearly dashed all hope. They electrocuted themselves on power lines, drank antifreeze, were poached by heartless dolts and worst of all, gobbled carrion that was poisoned by lead bullets from hunters’ guns.

Scientists in the condor rescue program trained the birds to avoid power lines. They placed lead-fee carrion in condor nesting areas and recaptured the birds for regular checkups and, if necessary, chelation to get the lead out. Were these birds ever going to be truly wild, or pallid domesticated versions of the species?

Finally, the numbers began to turn in the condors’ favor. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a ban on lead ammunition in condor territory, a U-shaped area formed of coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevada with the Tejon Ranch as the bottom bridge of the U. In 2008, more condors lived in the wild than in captivity. In 2015, the wild population increased itself; more condor chicks hatched and fledged in the wild than the number of condors that died.

The following year, a study reported that the birds were adapting to the wild, expanding their range and finding their own food. There hadn’t been an electrocution in 12 years, a sign that adult condors were teaching power-line safety to their offspring.

A statewide ban on lead ammunition went into effect last year. And this year, the condor has landed, at least in Sequoia National Park, where it hadn’t made its home in half a century. Its ranks have swelled to more than 500 worldwide — the birds also nest in such areas as the Grand Canyon and Baja California — with more than half in the wild.

At a time when our nation feels outdone by a deadly new virus and uncertain whether or when we might subdue it, the condor’s new milestone is a source of hope, an inspiring message of determined scientists prevailing despite multiple setbacks.

It also is an instructive tale about the federal government’s role in difficult yet worthy public campaigns. It took federal support, belief in a bigger cause and trust in science to bring back this critically endangered species.

The current absence of that kind of federal government affects almost every aspect of American life for the worse. In recent months, it has hamstrung efforts to tame COVID-19, opening the door to new virus surges, increased deaths and renewed damage to the economy. President Trump’s insistence on boosting himself and business profits at the expense of science harms our health as well as the environment.

Would the Trump administration have saved the condor? His record on endangered species gives little reason to think so.

The Trump administration announced changes last year to how the Endangered Species Act will be carried out, shrinking the role of science in determining whether a species is imperiled and allowing industry concerns to play a major role in such decisions. The impacts of climate change on habitat, migration patterns and other crucial factors can no longer be taken into account, despite the enormous effect they’re having on polar bears and many other species. The priority used to be preserving nature; now, scarce plants and animals are subject to cost-benefit analysis.

It’s hard to imagine the California condor winning in that calculus. Saving them has meant cutting back on construction and other industrial activity in places. (Notably, the Trump administration plans to allow logging in Los Padres National Forest in prime condor territory. Conservation groups have sued to stop it.) The recovery project itself has been expensive. And yet the darn birds bring in no cash!

Their struggle nonetheless fires our collective imagination, enough that the image of a condor was included on the California quarter produced in 2005. It rides the air currents near Half Dome above Yosemite Valley, with John Muir in the foreground, a remembrance of when the vulture with the 10-foot wing span soared there.

The day of the condor’s return to Yosemite might not be that far off. A year ago, four of the birds briefly flew to a spot outside the city of Mariposa, less than an hour’s drive from Yosemite Valley. Science and perseverance in pursuit of a worthy goal have done Muir proud.

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