Cliff-jumpers versus condors in SoCal

Can $5,000 fines and jail time protect an endangered species from thrill-seekers?

 

Encountering a condor at Tar Creek.
db_platypii/Flickr
Before he heads out to patrol Tar Creek, a steep California canyon, Russ Tuttle, a law enforcement officer for the Forest Service, carefully gears up. Despite the summer heat, he pulls on a heavy bulletproof vest, then checks in with “dispatch” and holsters his weapon. His work involves protecting an endangered species, the California condor. But any trespassers he encounters this weekend are more likely to see him as a killjoy.

His beat looks like most of Southern California’s chaparral backcountry, only steeper. Less than two miles from the dirt road, the trail meets a hidden canyon that plunges steeply for miles, following a watercourse through a series of pools and over waterfalls, some of them well over a hundred feet high. Only 60 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the twisting, watery path down Tar Creek feels a bit like a Southwestern slot canyon: high cliffs, huge boulders and ochre-colored stone slopes smoothed by eons of water. It’s a landscape that cliff jumpers and thrill seekers find irresistible. And that’s why Tuttle is here: The area is supposed to be off-limits to protect the California condor.

The “closure” signs, set at eye level, are impossible to miss. Yet just beyond them, Tuttle spots three people coming over the ridge. Tuttle is a tall, confident man with an appealingly crooked smile, but he moves with a military bearing as he intercepts the trespassers.

“How was the water?” he asks casually.

“It was low,” Jesse Vera replies with a shrug. Dark-eyed and 30ish, Vera has gauge hoops in his earlobes and a rose tattoo on his shoulder. Tuttle escorts Vera and his companions, a young woman friend and her son, out of the sanctuary, making small talk for 40 minutes. Vera grumbles that the closure is “ridiculous.”

“Next thing you know, they’ll be charging us to take a walk to water,” he mutters. At the trailhead, Tuttle issues him a $150 ticket. Vera drives off in his SUV, without a backward glance, his jaw set in anger.

Tar Creek is at the heart of a sanctuary first set aside for the California condor in 1947. For decades, it’s been closed to the public. Meanwhile, the condor —  after a near-brush with extinction near the end of the 20th century — has begun making a comeback in recent years.     

Map of California condor activity. Some of the greatest density is in the Hopper Mountain/Tar Creek area near Fillmore. Click to view larger.
       

Joseph Brandt, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversees the condor recovery effort from nearby Hopper Mountain, says 66 California condors inhabit Southern California today triple the number in the entire world just three decades ago, when a captive breeding program was begun. The program has been successful, with a “stellar season” of 10 nesting pairs recorded this year in the wild, Brandt said. Yet, remembering how fragile the species was when his agency first began studying it, Brandt hesitates to predict the future.           

“I think we could easily double the population and still not reach the carrying capacity of the area,” he says. “But beyond that, I would really be speculating as to what the upper limit of the population could be.”

Meanwhile, the condor faces a new threat: the loss of its ancestral home at Tar Creek. And this time, the Forest Service is battling a new problem: today’s new breed of you-only-live-once daredevils, who trespass in forbidden wilderness with carefree abandon, pinging their exploits through cyberspace at the speed of light.

Photos and posts to social media from cliff jumpers in Tar Creek have helped popularize the area.
Courtesy itsthatasianlucas/Instagram
Some Tar Creek adventurers have boasted about their unexpected violations on social media.
Courtesy hi_im_geo/Instagram

Hidden by brush deep in the 1.5-million-acre Los Padres National Forest, Tar Creek remained mostly unknown for decades. Then, in 2003, according to Forest Service records, a rock climber posted a technical guide to the canyon. Soon, other posts followed on social media, as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat came online. Ecstatic reviewers with names like “fyeahCalifornia” called the area one of the best cliff-jumping sites in the region. Before long, bare-chested 20-somethings in board shorts, sometimes with drinks in their hands, could be seeing crowing online about their adventures. Helmet cams caught and shared footage of 70-foot plunges into pools.   

The crowds — who came from as far away as Long Beach, according to their license plates — carried in massive quantities of every conceivable sort of trash. They also brought more work for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, which tackled dozens of medical evacuations, for everything from heat exhaustion to injuries from falls.

“This is a prime example of an area that is being loved to death,” warns Jeff Kuyper, executive director of the environmental group Los Padres ForestWatch.

Inevitably, this was bad news for the birds. In 2009, a young condor was found strangled at the edge of a falls in Tar Creek. Brandt remembers seeing the 3-year-old bird, which twice in its short life was treated for lead poisoning, lying dead in a loop of purple climbing rope. “Losing a single condor is not catastrophic in terms of recovering the species or re-establishing it in the wild,” he says, “but this condor’s death was very significant in that it shows just how dangerous our impacts can be.” 

Biologists are especially worried about what they call “microtrash,” the tiny bits of detritus that largely go unnoticed by humans but can be deadly to these rare birds. Condors are naturally curious and have accidentally killed their own chicks by feeding them small sharp objects such as bottle caps.

An x-ray shows 'microtrash' found inside a young condor chick.
Courtesy Forest Service

With the surge in visitors came an explosion of graffiti: gang tags, fake petroglyphs, even white power symbols. Last year, realizing they were losing control of the area, Tuttle and the Forest Service decided to join forces with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, biologists at the Santa Barbara Zoo and the Audubon Society.

“We sat down and agreed that the public education approach was just not working,” Tuttle says.

So last fall, the agency reinstituted a local order that made entering the canyon a criminal act. Law enforcement officers can write “federal tickets,” with penalties up to $5,000 in fines and six months in jail. The district will test the new policy for a year, but Tuttle thinks it’s working already.

“We used to see 40 to 50 people a day in here on weekends, with 20 to 30 cars at the trailhead,” he says. “Now it’s down to just five to 10, and a handful of cars. Word is getting out that we’re enforcing the order.”

Without the trash and graffiti (which authorized volunteers have helped remove), a sense of quiet is returning to the canyon. At least one condor nests in the area, though Brandt worries that the birds will become habituated to humans. Still, in time, he hopes that Tar Creek will again be a safe home for the enormous birds.

Despite the crackdown, however, some recreationists remain determined to invade the canyon, even if it means putting the condors — and themselves — at risk.

In a post on Facebook in May, a commenter named “Los Angeles Swimmim,” describes jumping 30 feet from a cliff into a green pool of water. The photo shows him halfway into the leap, limbs flailing. The caption reads: “Risking life and limb and jail time to do what I love most.”

A California Condor flies over the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, which borders Los Padres National Forest.
USFWS

Kit Stolz is a writer based in Ojai, California.