Birdwatchers, nature lovers and wildlife biologists gathered at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument to witness the 26th annual California condor release on Sept. 25, which was also National Public Lands Day.
The event, which was also livestreamed on YouTube, saw the release of five juvenile female condors that had been transferred to Arizona from captive breeding facilities at the Oregon Zoo in Portland and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.
As dozens of people stood in the valley below, watching through binoculars and telescopes, the doors of the cliff-top release pen were opened at 12:15 p.m. Arizona time. The first condor left the pen around four minutes later, and two more followed 15 minutes after that – one of which almost immediately took a short flight to a nearby animal carcass to feed.
The last of the five condors exited the cage about 38 minutes after the doors were opened.
The Arizona-Utah California Condor conservation program is a cooperative effort by the Peregrine Fund, Bureau of Land Management Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, BLM in Utah, Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Kaibab and Dixie National Forests, and other federal, state and private partners.
According to a press statement announcing Saturday’s release, the California condor population had declined to 22 individuals in the 1980s when the greater California Condor Recovery Program was initiated to save the species from extinction.
As of July 2021, there were more than 100 condors in the wild in northern Arizona and southern Utah, and the total world population of California condors numbered more than 500, with more than half in Arizona, Utah, California and Mexico.
Tim Hauck, the condor reintroduction program manager at the Peregrine Fund, said the five condors released on Saturday – all of which were about 1.5 years old – had been driven to Vermilion Cliffs from the captive breeding facilities in Oregon and Idaho a few weeks before the release “so they could acclimate to the new environment.”
They were placed in the holding pen 10 days before their release, and were not fed for three days beforehand. Animal carcasses – the main food source for California condors – were placed on the clifftop outside the cages to entice the juveniles to exit the cages, as well as to attract adult condors to the area. About 30 adults were present at the site on the day of the release.
Hauck said that following the release, wildlife biologists would remain in the area for a few weeks to monitor the five juveniles and make sure they were flying well and roosting in safe locations away from the predation of coyotes.
Even after they survive their first few days in the wild, the condors face other dangers, Hauck said.
“Lead poisoning is the biggest threat to the condor. Just over half of all diagnosed mortality is caused by ingesting lead from spent ammunition in the carcasses that they feed on,” he said.
“Fortunately, hunters have gone to great lengths to remove this threat from the landscape.”
This includes voluntarily switching to copper ammunition or making sure that gut piles that might contain lead bullet fragments are buried or removed from the wild.
Of the other dangers faced by condors, drought does not yet seem to be a major concern.
“We have not seen a negative effect. However, that does not mean that there couldn't be potential impacts to the condor population in the years to come,” Hauck said.
“In fact, there have been years in the southwest where extreme drought has caused a die-off in domestic stock and other wild ungulates which has greatly benefited the condors given their unique ability to clean up the landscape.”
Chris Parrish, the Peregrine Fund’s director of global conservation, added that “drought is sometimes good business for scavengers.”
“They don’t need water. If they have enough to eat, they get all the moisture they need through the metabolic process,” he said.
Hauck noted that all four of the juveniles released during the 25th annual release in 2020 are still alive and living in southern Utah. Saturday’s release brings the regional population to 110 condors.
“The population has been steadily increasing over the past decade. This is in part because of the captive releases to the wild and the increased productivity from year to year with breeding in the wild,” Hauck said.