Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wild Condors As Outdoor Zoo Animals?

A report from an AOU panel raises questions about how successful the program to restore California condors has been. Attempts to create new nesting colonies have required repeated interventions to save condors from the hazards of modern society.

They must be frequently trapped, tested and treated for lead poisoning. They depend on man-made "feeding stations," a buffet of lead-free carcasses of rats, deer, stillborn calves and other animals, a practice that has damaged their ability to forage.

As for natural reproduction, the yearlong study found that the condors' nesting success was "nil" before intense intervention last year to vaccinate chicks for West Nile virus and surgically remove ingested refuse such as rags, nuts, bolts, plastic and bottle caps.

Human aid has led to "inappropriate behavior" of the condors, which are attracted to people and man-made structures, the 57-page report found. The gregarious birds perch on utility poles, risking electrocution and, in Southern California, have taken to soaring with hang gliders and mingling with humans to pick through food wrappers.

So much effort is required to feed, nurse and protect wild condors, the scientists wrote, "that one might argue that they constitute little more than outdoor zoo populations."
Lead poisoning is one of the biggest problems, so much so that the report finds that condor population recovery will not be possible as long as lead ammunition continues to be prevalent within the condor's range. So far California is the only state to ban lead ammunition. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been doing outreach to hunters in other parts of the condor's range, where bans seem unlikely due to heavy opposition from the NRA. Even in California, there have been problems with enforcement and compliance. Arizona has had some success with a voluntary program including vouchers for non-lead ammunition.

Altogether the outlook for condors seems bleak. It is very sad to see a formerly wild bird basically acting like a city pigeon. It is possible that the report was overly pessimistic, but even so it raises questions about the future of recovery efforts. Will federal and state governments continue funding interventions? Can a species that requires substantial and prolonged human intervention to survive really be said to be wild?