Getting the Lead Out

There was California Condor 36 again, showing off for tourists this summer along the side of Highway 1 near Big Sur, unruffled as people came within a couple of feet, snapping pictures. Fun for tourists, but an example of why restoring California’s flagship endangered species is proving to be such a delicate effort.

The last fully wild condor was captured near Tejon Ranch, on the far side of the I-5 Grapevine, in 1987. It entered a captive breeding program that so far has cost about $35 million yet has met with shaky success. The post-captivity condors -- there are 47 of them now released in California -- are less afraid of people than the original wild birds. Fear of humans is a learned, not natural, behavior for condors, experts say, and so far the released population lacks wary elders to teach the youngsters. Worse, condors that like hanging around people teach their behavior to others in the flock.

Towns and other developments are a magnet for curious condors, which are drawn to the buzz of activity -- an evolutionary reminder, experts conjecture, of times when a ruckus meant a feeding frenzy that might leave a carcass for them to pick clean. In modern times, those primeval impulses work against already fragile chances of survival. For unknown reasons, condors like to eat small, shiny objects -- like bottle caps and glass. They will drink antifreeze and dip into a puddle of oil. They’re the toddlers of the avian world, curious, mischief-prone, always testing the limits and putting the wrong things in their mouths. As a result, some of the released birds have died.

Their new lives in the wilderness are hardly wild. They’ve been trained to avoid power poles, are continually radio-monitored, pulled back for more training when they get chummy with humans and fed by keepers who leave meat around for them to keep them from eating lead-tainted carcasses.

So, beyond the sprawl issues, there’s valid reason for concern about proposed developments in Tejon Ranch. The biggest part of the proposed development -- a city of 70,000 people plunked into the Antelope Valley -- isn’t in the condors’ favored habitat; though they soar over it, the winds work against their wanting to land there. The activity of a new town there would probably draw their interest but perhaps not their presence. But a proposed low-density mountain resort community in the Tehachapi Mountains, details unrevealed, would be closer to condors’ roosting and foraging grounds. The ranch is setting aside 37,000 acres as a preserve for the condors, but no one knows whether that would mean much to a bird that can travel 150 miles in a day.


Having made this and other concessions for the birds’ safety, the ranch now seeks a federal “incidental take” permit that would hold the ranch blameless if condors were injured or killed accidentally because of the development -- say, for example, if one ate shiny nails left on the ground.

Incidental-take permits for other species are fairly common, but nothing is common and less is certain when it comes to condors. With only 47 condors in California’s wilderness -- by comparison, there are 1,590 pandas in the wild in China -- it’s hard to justify activities that could kill them, even accidentally.

Still, environmentalists and regulators are sacrificing the bigger issue by focusing on Tejon construction. Even ardently anti- development condor experts say the far bigger threat is lead bullets, the same problem that led to the captive breeding program. By eating the remains of hunter kills, condors ingest the lead. Five released condors have died of lead poisoning, according to Bruce Palmer, until recently the coordinator of the condor recovery effort. Lead has been found in two-thirds of the released birds.

Non-lead bullets for hunting exist, though they’re more than twice as expensive. It’s a reasonable financial burden for an elective hobby. If hunters can pay for the gasoline to power their SUVs and pickups into hunting territory, they can certainly afford a less toxic bullet.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, instead of bragging about how biologists will scare condors from Tejon construction sites by squirting them with water pistols, could save more birds by banning lead bullets on the federal lands in condor habitat, which includes Los Padres National Forest. The California Fish and Game Commission should be doing the same on relevant state lands. Tejon Ranch CEO Bob Stine says if he could get the two government agencies to commit to such a ban within the next few years, he would take the first step by immediately banning lead bullets on ranch property, a noted commercial hunting ground.

Another plus: Condors could start foraging for their own food instead of counting on carcasses placed nearby. Palmer says the convenience of knowing where their food is leaves the condors with too much spare time, which they use, toddler-like, to get into dangerous mischief.

There will be long, loud debate over Tejon Ranch development. If condors could have some lead-free years before anything is built, their numbers might increase enough that environmentalists wouldn’t choke on the notion of allowing accidental killings on construction sites. Then at least the development battle could be about the usual topics, not California’s embattled flying goofballs.