The "Hands-on" Barrier

When I took over as condor researcher in 1969, condor investigations were hopelessly stymied, and the species was probably already beyond the point of recovering on its own. The inability to act on the condors' account was the result of a 1953 California State law that forbade the trapping or handling of live condors for any purpose. This unfortunate legislation came about as a result of the San Diego Zoo's well-intentioned (but not very well thought out) proposal to start a captive breeding program for condors, and of a well-intentioned (but exceptionally short-sighted) desire by others to keep condors out of cages. This was before the Federal Government claimed any responsibility for endangered species. Because no one was actively studying the condors during the 1950s and early 1960s, the draconian law went unchallenged.

When my predecessor, Fred Sibley, began to study the condors in 1966, he immediately saw that significant research would be difficult without some way to identify individual birds. He proposed capturing condors and marking them so they could be tracked in the future. Unfortunately for the condors, Fish and Wildlife Service was not prepared to challenge the State law. The new Federal endangered species research program was already being attacked by some nature groups as being too manipulative. The proposal to remove eggs from whooping crane nests for hatching in captivity was strongly opposed by National Audubon and others, and a captive rearing program for Andean condors was seen by some as the first suspicious step toward taking California condors from the wild. National Audubon Society had just released a report on condors that, although suggesting a 33 percent decline in the condor population in less than 20 years, declared the species could still be saved by more law enforcement and education. In a 1967 editorial in "Audubon Magazine," the Society took the position that the condor was "a bird with which we cannot afford to experiment." Fred's proposal failed to get any hearing, either inside or outside the Fish and Wildlife Service.

It didn't take long for me to agree with Fred's assessment that something more than long-distance watching was required if the condors were to have any chance of survival. In early 1970, Dean Carrier and I began a steady series of challenges to the Condor Technical Committee members (forerunner of the Recovery Team) to consider both a marking program and the future possibility of captive breeding. Few members wanted to even entertain the subject, let alone seriously discuss it. They were sure none of their bosses would want to take on the controversy and "politics" that would certainly result. It took four years of data presentation before the technical committee finally agreed to support a "contingency plan," beyond the habitat protection, law enforcement and education aspects of the then-current thinking. It took another three and a half years for the Director of Fish and Wildlife Service to give a qualified approval to the Contingency Plan. Even then, the plan languished in the national offices of Fish and Wildlife Service until late 1979, before it looked like we were really ready to move ahead. (As it turned out, four more years were lost due to biologist screw-ups, but Dean and I were long gone. That's somebody else's story.)

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For those of you interested in the socio-political side of endangered species preservation, Chapters 38 through 46 of "Condor Tales" tell in detail the story of the development of the condor captive breeding program.


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Sanford Wilbur 2021