BITTER CREEK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Calif. – Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Program, together with their partners, released six captive-bred endangered California condors into the wild in the last months of 2017 from Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Kern County, California.
This release brings the population of condors in what is known as the Southern California flock to approximately 80 birds. The Southern California flock’s range includes the backcountry mountains of Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and Kern counties, as well into the Sierra Nevada Mountains foothills in Tulare and Fresno counties. An additional 88 condors occur near central California’s coast, bringing the total population in California to 168.
The worldwide population of California condors once dipped as low as 23 in the 1980s, at which time all birds were brought into captivity in order to prevent species extinction. Since 1992 the Service and its partners in the recovery of the California condor have been releasing captive-bred birds into the wild in southern and central California, Arizona, and Baja, Mexico. The current wild population at the end of 2017 was 288 and an additional 196 birds in captivity for a total world population number of nearly 500.
"Releasing captive-bred birds is the quickest way to increase the number of wild condors, with the ultimate goal of achieving a self-sustaining, free-flying population,” said Molly Astell, a wildlife biologist with the California Condor Recovery Program.
Of the six birds released this year at Bitter Creek NWR, three were bred by the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, one by the Oregon Zoo, one from San Diego Safari Park, and one came from the breeding program at the Los Angeles Zoo. The condors released are California condors #649, #811, #816, #818, #819, and #839.
Before release the young condors spend approximately one year at the captive breeding facility socializing with older condors before being transported to the refuge. They spend at least six weeks in a flight pen there to become familiar with their natural environment. Other wild condors flying in the vicinity of the pen also give the younger birds examples of wild behavior to mimic. Once released the juvenile birds rely on the older, more experienced birds to learn where to forage for food, where to roost and ultimately finding a mate and reproducing.
Each bird is equipped with a GPS transmitter which will allow biologists to closely monitor their activities and threats as they integrate into the wild flock. The birds are monitored by a number of field biologists with the Santa Barbara Zoo, Great Basin Institute and AmeriCorps interns. The major threat to scavenging birds such as condors, and bald and golden eagles is from spent lead ammunition found in the carcasses that the birds feed upon. The use of non-toxic alternatives to lead ammunition is being transitioned into traditional hunting sports. The hunting community currently is leading this change to further their long-standing position as leaders in wildlife conservation.
"Releasing captive-bred California condors augments the wild population, ensures genetic diversity in the flock, and helps to offset condor deaths that occur in the wild,” said Dave Meyer, wildlife biologist for the Santa Barbara Zoo. “Residents and outdoor enthusiasts in the area, like the Tehachapi Mountains, may very well see these young birds soaring overhead being guided by older condors.”
Bitter Creek NWR is part of the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex which oversees the California Condor Recovery Program, and public lands at Bitter Creek, Hopper Mountain, Blue Ridge and Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes national wildlife refuges, conserving more than 20,000 acres of wildlife habitat in central and Southern California. The National Wildlife Refuge System manages a national network of lands and waters set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife, and plants.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.