Returning the California Condor to the Pacific Northwest

By Taylor Bailey ::

“Condor at Zoo, May 3, 1926” Location unknown. Source: Library of Congress.

On March 11, 1967, the California condor was placed on the Endangered Species List. The largest flying land bird in the North America was determined to be “threatened with extinction” in the first report of its kind compiled in accordance with the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. At the time, an estimated 60 birds remained in the wild.

A California condor soars in California. Even when returned to the wild, condors are highly managed by biologists of the USFWS. They sport numbered tags so scientists can keep track of them. Source: USFWS)

The Pacific Northwest was part of the historical range of the condor, which once spanned from Baja Mexico to the southern tip of British Columbia. Lewis and Clark of the Corps of Discovery wrote of seeing what they called the “beautiful buzzard of the Columbia” during their travels. “I believe this to be the largest bird of North America,” Lewis wrote in his journal in February 1806.

The decline of the condor from the Pacific Northwest is intimately tied to predator control measures implemented by ranchers and government officials to exterminate wolves, bears, cougars, and coyotes. When widespread use of strychnine baits began in the West during the 1840s, wolves and other predators were lured with the poisoned meat of freshly slain game or livestock. Although not the target, condors certainly fed on poisoned carcasses and perished. The last condor was sighted in Oregon in 1904.

When Congress passed the revised Endangered Species Act in 1973—which allowed for greater protections for listed species—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service California Condor Recovery Team drafted a plan to save the species from almost certain extinction. The plan centered on a captive breeding program that would supplement the wild population. Despite their efforts, numbers of wild condors continued to drop, and after a devastating loss of 40% of the wild population in 1985, only one breeding pair remained in the wild. Faced with the pressure of preserving the species, the recovery team opted to capture the remaining wild individuals and breed them for future release.

Capturing the remaining wild condors proved to be a controversial decision, as did the general plan to save them from extinction. In 1986, the biologist Norman D. Levine wrote in the journal BioScience, “Do we really need… condors?” “Let us not be disturbed at the loss of some species,” Levine said. “Extinction is not evil; it is normal and necessary.” But the decimation of the California condor was caused almost entirely by human actions. Loss of habitat, strychnine poison used in predator extermination, the ingestion of lead ammunition from game carcasses, and widespread use of the pesticide DDT all contributed to the decline of the bird. In his book After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California, the historian Peter Alagona described the conflict as a debate between “hands-on versus hands-off management” of wildlife. Critics thought invasive management techniques contradicted the condor’s image as the symbol of untainted wilderness, while many biologists viewed captive breedings as the only possible solution to keep the species from dying out.

California Condors at a breeding facility. (Photograph by Jon Myatt)

After 100 years—not long after the condor recovery team established successful captive breeding programs in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Boise—the bird officially returned to the Pacific Northwest. On November 20, 2003, the Oregon Zoo opened its doors to six breeding pairs, which are housed at the Condor Creek Conservation Facility in an undisclosed area of Clackamas County. There, the Zoo breeds condors for future release in the wild. Young birds are trained to avoid perching on power lines, how to feed on natural food items, and are mentored by adult birds. Thanks to programs like these, there are now over 400 California condors alive today.

Although the condor represents a miraculous success story for endangered species conservation, other North American mammals on the original 1967 Endangered Species List—the Caribbean monk seal, the Ivory-billed woodpecker, and Florida’s Dusky Seaside Sparrow—weren’t so lucky. Despite the success of captive breeding programs, the condor still faces significant hurdles to achieving the Recovery Team’s goal of a sustainable wild population. Hunting with leaded ammunition is still the most significant threat to condors today, and although it is being phased out in California, it remains unrestricted in Oregon. Until legislators confront the issue of lead ammunition, the condor’s future as a permanent, wild resident in Oregon is uncertain.

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Music used

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Feasting on the Flowers”


Taylor Bailey, Project Manager
Kim Andrews, fact checker and editor