People And Condors

How We Almost Pulled Failure from the Jaws of Success

Sanford R. "Sandy" Wilbur

[This was a paper I presented at a 1993 conference on  public participation held at Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada.]

INTRODUCTION. The California Condor is one of the rarest birds in the world, but a good biological program has increased its numbers from about fifteen in 1983 to a couple hundred today. Although this is not yet a complete "success story," it is certainly among the most remarkable stories of endangered species enhancement to date. In its way, the human story of how this came about is as interesting as the biological story. It's a tale of how a well-formulated and well-executed public involvement program helped overcome great opposition to the proposed recovery strategy. It's also a tale of how easy it was to cavalierly ignore public feeling, and in consequence almost lose the ability to move ahead at the most critical time for the condors. Coming as the program did at a time when most government agencies did not acknowledge either a need for, or responsibility for, involving the public in their work, it is interesting as a case study of early use of concepts, principles, and techniques that are now standard fare for public participation practitioners. Because, thirty years after the public involvement began, we are still living with the successes and failures of our original process, it serves as a reminder that doing the job right (or wrong) can have long-term implications for your project, career, business, or profession.

THE PROBLEM. From 1966 to 1968, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service had an excellent field biologist, Fred C. Sibley, researching the condor. By 1968, it had become clear to Sibley and his boss, Ray C. Erickson [chief of the Service's Endangered Wildlife Research Program], that the condor was not likely to survive without supplementing their egg-laying with a program of breeding some in captivity. Only a few years before, Erickson had been strongly criticized by the National Audubon Society for his move to bring endangered Whooping Cranes into captivity for breeding purposes, and he felt sure that any condor breeding proposal advanced at that point would be defeated by public opposition. [The Audubon Society is a group dedicated to bird preservation, but at that time they felt that captive breeding was too drastic a program for any endangered species.] Erickson was also aware that, in the 1950s, a proposal by the San Diego Zoo to breed condors in captivity had met with such opposition that the California State Legislature had passed a law forbidding the removal of condors from the wild for any purpose. Erickson was sure that it would take a lot of hard selling before a captive breeding program for condors would be approved.

When Fred Sibley left the condor research program in 1968, Erickson showed a rare insight for the times [remembering that the Fish and Wildlife Service then had virtually no interest and no training in public involvement]. He decided that Sibley's replacement should be someone with high credibility as a biologist, but also someone who could take research results to the various approving agencies and to the public, and convince them that such a "drastic" program was needed. He selected me from the management branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service as much for my background in writing, public speaking, and working in teams as he did for my research abilities. It took over ten years to "sell" the program, but the Erickson strategy ultimately paid off.

 DEFINING THE PUBLIC PARTICIPATION PROGRAM. It would be highly misleading for me to say that we actually planned our public information strategy from the start. I brought only common sense, on-the-job training in "public relations" to my position as condor recovery team leader, and my co-workers had even less experience with the public. There were few training courses or "how to" manuals available, then. Nevertheless, we managed to ask ourselves some questions that have since become standard in developing public participation, then we went forward on the basis of our answers to those questions. The questions were:

  • What are the key issues of interest to our publics?
  • Who are our publics?
  • Why are they likely to be supportive or opposed?
  • What can we do to increase the support, or decrease the opposition?

In answer to the first question, we concluded that there were two big issues. First, we had to convince the right people that a captive program was warranted. We knew that such programs had opposition because of their newness, and because at least some people felt that captive breeding was unduly "tampering with nature." We also knew that even a successful breeding program could take many years - certainly twenty, or more - so there had to be long-term commitment of money and staff. We also had to assure that vast amounts of land were preserved in a relatively undeveloped state for condor nesting and feeding. Condors don't need complete isolation, but they do need a certain amount of seclusion, particularly during the nesting season. The country around the condor areas was rapidly urbanizing, there were known petroleum reserves "locked up" under the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, and there was recurring demand for increased water development and more recreation area for the increasing local human populations. There were real questions about how long large areas of public land could be kept off limits to new uses, particularly if the recovery program did not show very early signs of success.

Having defined the key issues, we then defined our publics and the reasons we felt each group would have for supporting or opposing our proposal. Our initial list looked like this:


·       General public (part, anyway) - uniqueness of the bird

·       Bird lovers & environmentalists - uniqueness; symbol of wildness

·       Scientists - unique species, important gene pool

·       Wildlife agencies - their job to save endangered species

·       Congress (in part) - endangered species popularity; no significant lobby against condors

·       U. S. Forest Service - mission to save endangered species

·       Wilderness advocates - help preserve wild areas


·       General public (in part) - "just a buzzard;" too expensive to save

·       Congress (in part) - high cost, long duration, uncertainty of project

·       Oil interests & water developers - developable resources still tied up

·       "Multiple use" advocates - recreational and commercial resources still tied up

·       "Animal rightists" - don't want animals manipulated or kept in captivity

It turned out that we were naive in starting from the premise that most scientists and wildlife enthusiasts would be in favor of, or could be convinced to be in favor of, our proposal. We believed most of the opposition would come from groups who wanted the condor lands open to more commercial and recreational use. We felt the general public and Congress would probably split between those who were philosophically strongly in favor of endangered species preservation, and those who were opposed philosophically to captive breeding or who didn't think it would be "worth the money." What really showed up was not anywhere near that clearcut.

Our list of things we had to do to increase support and decrease opposition looked like this:

  • We had to be sure that we got our information to all the identified publics, and that we tailored our message to address the concerns of each group.
  • We had to convince skeptics that things really were as bad as we portrayed them, and that what was perceived by some as a drastic program really was warranted.
  • We had to convince a variety of groups that we had the knowledge to put the plan into effect, and that our plan was likely to be successful.
  • We had to convince those whose support we needed - and also those who could potentially stop the program - that the condor was WORTH IT.


WHAT WE ACTUALLY DID. Below, I've divided the public involvement process into three periods, based on the amount and success of the effort.

The "Successful" Period - Once we decided what it was we needed to "sell," we began in earnest to share our information, and to develop new information. To improve our credibility, we purposefully directed much of our research effort into aspects of condor biology that were not as well studied and documented as others. Even though we were confident that we wouldn't find any "answers" different than what we were ready to propose, we didn't want anyone to slow us down by suggesting that we hadn't done our homework.

We also began a campaign to make ourselves and our data more accessible. We didn't want our proposal defeated or delayed because the pertinent information and alternatives were not well known. We sought concurrence from the scientific community by: (1) establishing a "recovery team" of biologists, ecologists, and other knowledgeable individuals, who met regularly to review current data; (2) publishing pertinent data in technical and professional journals; (3) holding formal symposia on condor biology and recovery questions; and (4) encouraging "blue ribbon" panels of professionals not directly associated with the condor program to evaluate our findings. We reached our other publics by: (5) publishing in popular and semi-technical publications; (6) preparing and distributing periodic newsletters covering new findings and recent happenings; (7) organizing field trips and "condor watch" days during which people had a chance to see condors, and also to talk with the "condor experts" one-on-one; and (8) speaking to as wide a variety of groups as would let us through their doors.

Another part of our drive for credibility involved keeping ourselves focused on just one issue: what does the California Condor really need for survival? Southern California was in the throes of great change at that time, and preservationists were always on the lookout for anything that could slow down development of wilder areas. Because the condor was so endangered, it was logical for them to attempt to bring it into any fight to "save the environment." We pledged among ourselves to resist the temptation to help "save the world," and to only get involved when we felt a proposal could seriously affect the condors. This sometimes gave us some short-term "bad press" among groups that we hoped would support our proposal. For example, a national environmental organization accused me in their national magazine of "selling out" to a mining company because I wouldn't say that a proposed phosphate mine on a national forest would be a death blow for the condors. [There were many good reasons to oppose the mine - and reason ultimately prevailed, and it was not authorized - but the condor wasn't one of them.] Our stance paid off in the long run, but it wasn't always comfortable at the time!

We also worked on our credibility by stressing honesty and vulnerability. We tried to share with everyone, whether they were perceived as supporters or opponents. We really tried to take note of what people said and the ideas they presented, even if they weren't "experts" like us. We didn't evade the hard questions or hard answers, either. I remember the first scary time when an important official asked what we would do if we killed a condor when we tried to trap it. Our response was that we would almost certainly lose condors before we achieved our objective. In later years, as we did lose condors, that honesty served us in good stead, and has saved the program from being cancelled because of apparent "failure."

During this first period - roughly 1969 to 1979 - support for the condor recovery plan grew steadily, as it became apparent that we really did know what we were talking about. This is not to say that everyone was thrilled with our proposal, and fully supportive of it, but we seemed to have informed consent - a willingness by all participants to go along with our proposed course of action, and not attempt to stop us. We were euphoric. Then, things began to fall apart.

The "Great Crash" - Unfortunately, in our euphoria, we failed to see and understand that our public participation effort had failed to reach on of our most important publics - one we didn't specifically identify in our original scoping  - our bosses! Within months of our apparent victory:

·       A decision was made (by the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service) to make drastic changes in how many condors were to be captured and handled. This issue had been one of the stickiest we faced in achieving public consent, yet the change was announced with no preamble or attempt to explain why the agency was modifying the plan.

·       The best-known names in the condor program (mine, included!) were suddenly gone, and new researchers were brought in to implement the new plans. [These were competent biologists, but they were complete unknowns to the public we had been working with for ten years.]

·       The new researchers killed a condor. [We had known this would happen, but they killed it during a visit to a condor nest, for a study that most people could see no value to.]

·       When they tested the rocket nets they planned to use to catch condors, they set a grass fire that needed the services of local firefighters to put out - just one more incident to make onlookers question if these new people had any idea what they were doing!

·       Two government agencies that had been key cooperators in the development of the recovery plan withdrew their support for the revised Fish and Wildlife Service plan.

·       A preservationist group filed a lawsuit to keep the program from going forward.

These disastrous turns of events were precipitated by internal power plays and bruised egos, which unfortunately are not rare in government and the sciences. In this case, the results were even worse than they would have been in most circumstances because our previous high level of public involvement and communication was in such striking contrast to the new situation. The public felt betrayed by the change in plans without consultation, and they were insulted by the seeming arrogance of "the new people," who obviously had all the answers and didn't feel they needed to justify to anyone what they did. The public was also suspicious of any group that would get rid of their most knowledgeable people just when they were embarking on a difficult new period in the recovery program. The bad luck of killing a condor and the poor judgement of setting a fire added to the public perception that these new folks were incompetent.

The law suit was eventually dismissed, and Fish and Wildlife Service went ahead with the revised program, but the condor recovery program was virtually on hold for almost five years. During that time, the expected population crash of the condor population occurred, and suddenly the only option left was to take all the remaining condors into captivity.

The Operational Period - Since the mid-1980s, the condor recovery program has been successfully moving forward, with virtually no controversy and no public involvement. The program gets a burst of media attention whenever anything particularly good or bad happens. Congress provides enough money each year to keep the program alive. Maybe the controversies of the early 1980s didn't hurt anything. Then again, maybe they did. [See my update, below.]

LESSONS? Since this is a case in which bad public relations finally won out over public dissatisfaction and even a lawsuit, one might question whether all the years of slow going and building a knowledgeable constituency were really necessary. I think they were. There was clearly much frustration with the way the final program was developed, but it turned out to be a good program that was still strongly based on the findings and rationale we had presented to the public. In the end, the argument wasn't about whether or not the condors were truly on the brink of extinction. Our information blitz had convinced nearly everyone that that was the case. The final arguments were really philosophical, addressing almost a moral decision of manipulating the population in captivity vs. letting the birds survive or fail on their own.

We did a pretty good job identifying our various publics and predicting their reactions, but there were some surprises. We failed to identify Native Americans as a "public," even though the condor has strong religious symbolism. Tribes were generally opposed to any manipulation of the population. We also made errors in stereotyping group thinking and forgetting that, while different groups exhibited different and predictable predominant leanings, individual human feelings can't always be categorized. Therefore, we had environmentalists who predictably supported saving the condor in any way, at any cost. However, we also had environmentalists who felt that there were limits to what you could do to the condor and still have a REAL condor. To them, condors raised from eggs hatched in zoos could never be the symbol of wilderness that had once sustained itself in the rugged California backcountry. Similarly, we had environmentalists who were convinced that the condor was too far gone to be saved, and also those who felt that the money spent on twenty or thirty years of captive breeding could be better spent on other environmental issues. 

The sentiment that only ersatz condors, and not "the real thing," could come from a captive breeding program surfaced as a strong counter-belief during the troubled early 1980s. We'll never know if it could have been a real program stopper if it had come up as an alternative during the "good" public participation days, but it is clear that we rational, practical, scientific types did not give it much attention as a legitimate public concern!

By far the most serious problem in our public participation strategy was our failure to bring our own bosses and agencies along with us. Part of the problem was that this type of public interaction was new to the government agencies. Not only did the agency heads not value public input, they didn't understand that, when public input was ignored and cast aside, it confirmed suspicions that "the Government" really didn't care what the people thought, and that the whole public process was a sham.

Unfortunately, "the Government" hasn't changed much in recent years . The public still feels (correctly) that public participation is often included only because it is an administrative requirement, and that the Government often has no intention of "doing something" with the public input. This poses a particular problem for the planner or administrator who is more enlightened than his agency. If a public participation program is pushed on an agency not ready for it, the credibility of both the administrator and the agency may be tarnished when (as occurred with the condor program) public input is not honored. There may be times when it is better to do it the old way, and just ignore public information and sentiment. It won't build respect for the Government, but it won't further diminish it!

I strongly believe that public participation is not just a means to getting your own way without lawsuits or other hassle, but it is also an ethical responsibility. People not only have a right to be heard; they also have a right to have their wishes and values considered just as carefully as are those of "the experts." Because I feel this way, I'm uncomfortable with the success of the condor recovery program. I'm thrilled that condors are once again flying over the southern California mountains, but I feel we lost considerable public interest in them when we applied our "strong arm tactics." This may have a practical downside: how long will Congress continue to fund a program that nobody cares about? But beyond that, I wonder if the condor program hasn't changed like the space program - from a noble experiment that captured the Nation's fancy, to a continuing exercise in technology? Perhaps we could have done better.

*   *   *

UPDATE 2014: The condor program continues "successfully," but there are problems that have developed. Perhaps the most important is the unresolved issue of how lead poisoning of condors is related to hunting, and how critical lead poisoning is to the ultimate success of the recovery program (see "Lead Poisoning" I, II and III, this website). The establishment of additional populations of condors may not be possible until that issue is clarified.


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© Sanford Wilbur 2021